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.”