If someone were to ask three specific questions about your book that would lead to an explanation of you, what would those three be?

What would they ask?  Let’s see….

1. Did you know that these were warning signs as a kid:  Counting while you bit your fingernails, chewing your sweatshirt sleeves in a perfect circle pattern, and wearing your sister’s hand-me-down pink cut-off shorts while memorizing the digits of pi?

2. How does a middleclass kid get expelled from three high schools in three different states and end up living out of a Greyhound Bus station in Texas?

3. Why didn’t you learn from your mistakes?  Are you stupid or just foolish?

 

Nice.  Now thinking of your story and all the extreme reactions to your characters:  People love Coop even though he’s crazy and violent.  Is he really the way that you portrayed him?

With Coop, I never considered exaggerating or changing a thing.  He’s a wonderful mix of loyal, angry, athletic, loving, and charismatic. He’s pure juxtaposition.  I like watching him read aloud to his toddler, shirtless, with gnarly bruises, scars, and tattoos all over his body.

A lot of the reviewers have been really harsh on your father, but your fans on Goodreads and Facebook see him another way.  What’s up with the disparity?

I don’t know. It seems like some of the reviewers didn’t read the end of the book.  But fans did.  They read the redemption.  Yes, my father made some bad decisions during a three-year period, but he’s 64 years old.  If a college football coach had a record of 61-3, he’d be in the Hall of Fame.  I’m not saying that my father’s perfect now, but he’s a pretty damn good grandfather, and he’s learned from his mistakes.  He knows how to let go.  And I like hanging out with him, watching baseball games with him or going to coffee.  We all have bad years, and parenting is tough, so I can’t judge him too harshly.

 

So the book tells the story of his low point?  Does that make him mad?  And what’s your family’s reaction?

My father has a pretty good sense of himself now, so no, he’s not angry.  Like I said, he knows how to let go.  He’s moved on.  People who read the book to the end understand that.  He changed after his shoulder injury. He’s not the same person anymore. People who work with him at the hospital understand that as well.  My father’s an incredible person.  A scholar who loves people and travel.  For twenty years now he’s done medical relief work in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala. As far as the rest of my family goes, the reaction to the book is mixed.  Some of them say, “Well, that’s just how it was back then.” Others say that they wish I’d included more of the positives, the before and after – the good stuff – especially about my father.  But when I chose to cut the book down, I focused on three years.  And those three years were not good.

 

So the book was longer at first?

The first draft was 521 pages of terrible.  And I never let anyone read that draft.  In fact, I got rid of the only two copies.  Six years and thirteen drafts later, the book was closer to its current form.

 

Then did it sell right away?

No.  I had a year of submissions with my first agent. Twenty-two rejections from editors at many houses and imprints.  They gave me specific and thoughtful rejections.

 

At that point, what did the editors like, and what did they not like?

Their responses were fairly consistent.  They all liked the imagery.  They said I did something with my similes that no one had really done before.  So they liked the writing on a sentence level.  But they said that the story arc was broken, and they were right.  It was complicated.  This probably won’t make sense, but I’d created an out-of-time-order, eleven-and-eleven chapter structure that linked the theme from Chapter 1 with Chapter 22, Chapter 2 with Chapter 21, and so on.  Time only met up at Chapters 11 and 12. It was pure craziness.  But my brain liked it.

I remember my agent saying, “So what exactly are you trying to do here?”

Sometimes different and original do not equal good.

 

There’s still a lot of time shifting in the book.  Flashbacks and disorientation.  You don’t always ground the reader.  Why do you leave out time markers?

Actually, my agent asked me my to put a time marker in every chapter, so I’ve added quite a few. But yeah, the reader isn’t grounded in time, and I wanted that effect.  High school felt eternal for me.  Weeks wouldn’t end.  So I wanted the reader to be out of a consistent time flow.  It’s funny because the book reads fast (I’ve had more than a 100 emails saying that a person read the book in one sitting), yet time doesn’t progress much in the story.

 

Are you still obsessive-compulsive?  And how do you get over that?

I’m a lot better than I used to be.  My obsessive-compulsive stuff is more like a temptation now.  Something I can fight.  I really want to tap my thigh 23 times before you say your next sentence, but I can make my hand stop.  I want to check my alarm clock thirteen times before I stretch my calves for three minutes, but I make myself walk away.

We all have temptations.  Mine are just a little more ridiculous than yours and often involve numbers.

 

Just like that, you wrote so many details that didn’t make you look good in this book. You seemed uncool or unstable, a poor decision-maker.  The End of Boys is sort of the anti-James Frey book, where you couldn’t grit your teeth and solve yourself, where you needed other people to help you.  Considering that you wouldn’t always look great, why’d you write a memoir?

Well, I was working on a novel for a couple of years, and it wasn’t going anywhere.  My friend, the writer Jose Chaves, was really honest.  He said, “This novel’s awful.  But you have such an interesting true story.  So write your memoir first.”  I was afraid to.  I didn’t want to cry through the first drafts of certain scenes or anything like that, but Jose was right.

Then when I talked to my wife Jennie, she said she’d support me through the process, help me as I write, and help me to move on afterward.  And she did.  She was incredible.

 

Was it hard to cut 300 pages?

Well, the first draft was so bad that Jennie didn’t even see it, and she’s my first reader.  So no, it wasn’t that hard to cut down. It was like cutting off long, yellow, grown-out, down-curving toenails.  They’re natural to your body in rough draft form, but they don’t have to stay there.

 

Even though it’s short, this book is an inspiring story of survival.  What do you hope for its future?

Well, I just found out that it’s being taught at a college and a high school this coming year. It’s being taught for craft at the college level.  It’s being taught at a high school in an alternative reading workshop. People say this book will be good for teens and parents of teens, and I hope that’s true.  I survived.  I went to college.  I became a father and a teacher.  And I have a life that I don’t deserve now, one that I’m grateful for.  So I hope the story means something to people.

 

Since it’s being taught at a college for its craft, what are your biggest craft pet peeves?

Good question. Things that annoy me……obvious dishonesty – or when I can tell that the writer is putting something in a chapter as a device.  I also hate clichés, both cliché images and cliché plot lines.  They’re hard to avoid – we say clichés all the time, think of cliché storylines – but they’re really bad for writing and culture.  I don’t want the girl to bite her lip nervously and be troubled but have a heart of gold.  I don’t want the next generation of readers to hope for that in a story.  And I hate heavy uses of adverbs and adverbial phrases too.  “Yelling wildly and throatily, the boy threw the rock without provocation.”

 

One final question: Is there anything about the publishing process that surprised you?

Yes.  Self-promotion and online time. It takes total commitment to get a book published and help it sell.  You have to spend way more time online than you ever thought. On Facebook, Twitter, your website.  Then you have to set limits on your online time so you still get your writing done.  It’s tough for an addictive personality like mine. I have to say, “I won’t check my email until I’ve written for forty-five minutes.”

Okay, let’s talk about rejections.

War wounds and badges of dishonor. I’ll see your bruised pride and raise you a broken spirit.

One of my favorite rejections to date came from an editor who knocked back my submission but told me by way of consolation that one of my colleagues—an enviable Irish wunderkind—got in instead, and how proud I must be. The editor went on to say that my story (which has since been published elsewhere) was ‘a little too dry, a little airless.’

‘She talking about your story,’ said a supportive friend, ‘or her vag?’

But the strangest rejection experience I ever had was sitting at an editorial table like a ghost, anonymous and invisible, while the editors tore my story, and me, to shreds. And this isn’t really a story about that story, or the editors, or me. It’s about the fifth editor. A lone voice and a goddess, who, like the others, had no idea that the story was mine but who knew what she liked and who had the guts to champion it. This is her story.

I had applied to join the editorial team of a prestigious university anthology. I applied out of loneliness. Had  just returned to Australia, finished my degree, and knew no other writers. I had been downsized from the best job I had ever had, a staff writing gig at a big cable TV conglomerate where I had worked for seven years. Then the absentee corporate owners of our home had returned with soiled white collars and kicked us out. It was best place we ever lived in and we’d been there for seven years too. I had lost all hope, all faith in myself. I had no idea what to do now, where to turn. The unpaid editorial gig came up and I went for it. I was interviewed by two of the country’s better-known authors who teach in the writing department of one of the state’s best universities. The anthology has been going for several decades and is traditionally launched at a major writers’ festival and has kick-started several writing and editing careers.When the nod came I was over the moon. I had visions of late-night editorial sessions, drunken book chat, racing off to meetings in the winter wind, working with up-and-coming writers.

Apart from the last one, none of this was going to happen and it took roughly two meetings for me to know it. It took roughly two minutes to know that I was anything but among friends. Unlike the previous editorial team, this one was all women. And perhaps like many teams, the Alpha and her Acolyte anointed themselves thus in short shrift. This is how it’s going to be, they all but intoned. We don’t read science fiction and we hate horror. Or experimental. Cult, schmult. And as for that muscular American macho shite, forget it. Give us cancer stories, farm animals and abused kids. Any ideals I had about putting together a diverse collection of fiction representing the best emerging writers in the country shrivelled as I stumbled away from meetings in the winter wind.

In addition to myself and Alpha and Alpha-lyte, the editorial team consisted of a darling but heavily pregnant editor whose thoughts were elsewhere, a teenaged writing student who was the designated Excel jockey (my God, I hear her relentless key strokes in my dreams) and a blue-eyed goddess with a wicked sense of humor.

Goddess and I hit it off like naughty kids in the back of the class. But our joint bid for diversity, for thinking outside the Bermuda triangle of cancer-bushfires-motherless children, went unheard. Submissions to the anthology were anonymous. We got over three hundred submissions. Our job was to cull these down to sixty, then thirty five, then the final cut of thirty, with two spares just in case.

Editors were allowed to submit. Anonymously as per instructions. The story I had submitted was not about mastectomies, drought or Child Services. It was about a bunch of materialistic Xers not coping with the GFC and it was called Sex and Death. Yet for some reason it made the long list. Then the short list. The final cut meeting arrived and there it was sitting at number thirty-three on that damn spreadsheet and there was nothing I could do about it. One of the Alphas, or maybe it was Excel, had designed a flawed ranking system from 0 to 10. The flaw was in allowing both 0 and 10 as ranks, when in fact they worked as wild cards, to skew the results toward a single vision. You could, for instance rank all the stories you wanted in a 10, and all those you wanted out, a zero. And that’s exactly what happened. I brought a bottle of wine to the final meeting. Goddess and I slurped from it while Alpha and Alpha-lyte dispensed with submissions 35 and 34. Then mine came up.

It was the oddest feeling and one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was out of body, hilarious in a nightmarish kind of way. Having to sit there and be asked my honest opinion on a story that I could not admit to having written but which apparently sucked asses. Alpha began with the pregnant editor. She said she’d read it but had forgotten what it was about. Abstain. Excel jockey was next. She said ‘eh’, got the stink-eye from Alpha and gave it a 3. ‘What about you,’ Alpha asked Lyte. Lyte said I’ll give it whatever you give it. Alpha gave it a 2. ‘What kind of hateful drivel is this?’ she said. ‘The characters are all so materialistic—(that’s the point, I wheedled). ‘I hate all the brand names,’ put in Lyte. ‘They really annoy me.’ (They’re meant to, I whimpered. By now I was sucking my thumb).

‘Goddess?’ They said. ‘What do you think?’

Goddess’s blue eyes blazed. Her porcelain skin flushed.

‘What do I think?’ She said. ‘What do I think? I think that this is the best fucking story of the whole lot. I fucking love it. It’s slick and professional and hilarious. I fucking cacked myself. I give it a ten.’

My vision had begun to tunnel; my pulse was all over the shop. I was having a full-blown panic attack. I was next.

‘What about you?’ They said.

If I gave my own story a 10, I’d be crucified when they found out. The system is fucked, I thought. How’d it get this far? At this stage I had grave misgivings about even being included in an anthology full of bleating lambs and tumors, yet if I panned my story, what kind of a self-sabotaging loser was I? And what kind of traitor to the Goddess, a lone voice in this wilderness of whining wimmin?

I gave it a seven. Goddess’s face fell. I hated myself.

Alpha shook her head. ‘No no no,’ she said. ‘I really don’t want this one to get in. I just don’t like it. You don’t either,’ she said to Lite, who vigorously shook her head and nodded at the same time. ‘You?’ she said to Jockey, who shrugged. We all looked at the Breeder, staring dreamily into space. ‘I’m going to have to give it a zero,’ said Alpha. ‘I want it out’.

‘Come on,’ said Goddess, looking beseechingly at me. Remember she had no idea it was mine. ‘It’s great. Anyone?’

‘Yeah,’ I said weakly, my skin burning with shame. ‘I like it too, but there’s something I should tell you—‘

‘How can you?’ said Alpha. ‘The characters are horrible. What’s its point? I don’t even know what’s happening half the time. And what’s with that masturbating scene at the end?’

Lyte tittered.

Crunch, went the numbers, and my story fell down dead at our feet.

That night I gave Goddess her usual lift home and she was ropable. Despairing. I tried to laugh it off, but between us lay the fact that I hadn’t come out swinging in support of the story she’d championed. I felt like a traitor, but how could I explain? She’d be embarrassed and I’d be humiliated and what kind of a basis is that for a friendship? Much better to found it on a lie. Mmmm. I was finding it difficult to concentrate on the road. I felt like a wreck waiting to happen. There was, or had been, a real if tenuous connection between us and I could feel it being strained to breaking point.

‘Doesn’t she get it?’ Goddess was saying. ‘It was the only decent story in the whole fucking lot. And what was that line about masturbation? Fuck me. If she thinks that’s masturbating, she’s doing it all wrong!’

That was it. She had me at that. I pulled over and we sat there in my car in the dark cracking up and then I came out with it. The truth. A stunned silence ensued. Then howls. Real-women howls. She-wolves in the night.

Goddess and I have been friends ever since. And I like to think we always will be.


***

 

Postscript 1: A cautionary note. Before the five of us took over, the outgoing editorial team briefed us on procedure. They warned us of the pitfalls in this kind of group decision-making. Blood will flow, they said. You’ll agree on one thing only, that most of the submissions stink. But when it comes to the shortlist you’ll be at each other’s bits. Just remember this. The more divisive a story is, the more consideration it deserves. The stories that divide the team, that cause the most heated debate, are the ones that are going to lift the collection. They’re the ones that need to get in. That’s what art is all about.

Postscript 2: I have not yet resubmitted Sex and Death. I will. One day.

Postscript 3: Calls for submissions to the anthology came out again last year. Goddess wrote and sent me a damn good story. I edited it. She submitted it to the new team. It made the cut.