Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Little Wooden Fish in Novels

On Tuesday I had a fun Skype visit with a boys book club down in Oklahoma. Fish is up for that state's prestigious Sequoyah Book Award, and a bunch of kids in Duncan, Oklahoma took a break from the sweltering summer heat to talk about the novel. I love the idea behind this book club: It's just for boys, with no girls allowed. That strikes me as a pretty clever way to convince a bunch of young ruffians to get together and talk about a book when they'd probably rather be out playing baseball or basketball or tackling each other into the local pool. I was as bookish as anyone when I was that age, but I'm not sure I would've let my parents talk me into heading to the library on a nice day. Now, if they'd told me my friends were going? Well then I probably would've given it a try.

We talked about their favorite characters and scenes, and what it takes to write a novel. Near the end, one of the boys asked a question I'd never heard before. In fact, I'd forgotten about this moment in the story entirely. Before he leaves the family farm, Fish's sister Roisin gives him a small, wooden carving of a fish. This  young Oklahoman wanted to know where I'd gotten that idea.

My great uncle loved carving, and taught my siblings and I how to whittle when we were young. I became hooked. For years I would bring my chisels and Dremel and spare driftwood with me everywhere. (This half-finished carving of Dr. Zaius, the legendary Planet of the Apes villain, is one of my favorites; I call it the Zaius stick and envisioned it as a tool to be used in debates on evolution.) My driftwood art became something of a joke among my friends, in part because I enjoyed turning so many weathered branches into characters from Planet of the Apes. I was also carrying a harmonica at that point in my life. Did I know how to play? Of course not. Yet I thought I had some sort of hidden talent for the instrument that might appear at any moment. I wanted to be ready.

Anyway, the point is that - yes, there's a point!! - the wooden fish is one of the little personal details that can make a fictional world or a story seem more complete and believable. My books are all set in different time periods and places, but they're filled with tiny details often borrowed from my own life. I'll stick my friend's nose on one character, turn Roisin into a wood-carver, or make one person walk like my father and I. (Feet turned out, proudly.) In my first book, the main character dons a pair of yellow rubber gloves to wash the dishes in his office. Why? Because my mother always used gloves like that when I was growing up and those gloves are a strong sense memory. The gloves were real to me. Visceral, and a little weird. And those kinds of powerful feelings attached to random objects often come through in your writing. They make certain details pop within the story, and resonate with readers, like that wooden fish did with this crewcut-topped young man. A novel isn't all details, obviously. But these powerful little notes can help bring it to life.

Before our Skype visit was finished, I also extended my condolences regarding the Thunder's devastating loss to the evil Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. No one seemed too broken up about that. I'm still upset, though. I might name one of my next villains after LeBron. Or I could always shake my Zaius Stick at the TV screen when he's shooting free throws.

To all the other librarians and teachers covering Fish or Dangerous Waters in the coming year, let me know, I'm always happy to pop in for a free virtual visit.