Monthly Archives: September 2012

Presenting: An Interview with the Author

[Full disclosure: I am about to interview myself.  Yes, this sounds bizarre. But you’d be surprised how many people–especially authors–create their own versions of Frequently Asked Questions to use for websites and publicity and such.  The difference here is, I’m admitting it.  Plus, for most of my writing career, I’ve worked for magazines and newspapers and have done hundreds of interviews, so in truth, I know way more about being an interviewer than I know about being an interviewee.  In fact, I’m a little nervous about this being-interviewed thing.  I just hope I don’t get annoyed with myself and flounce out of the interview in a huff.  But enough disclaiming.  On to the interview.]

Q:  Well Cal, how are you today?

A:  Fine, thanks for asking.  God, this feels weird.

Q:  Tell me about it.

A:  So let’s get on with it.  Ask the first question already.

Q:  Okay.  Um.  What was your inspiration for your young adult novel, Being Henry David?

A:  Good question.

Q:  Thanks.

A:  It’s hard to pinpoint where inspiration comes from, to be honest.  It wasn’t just one event or one idea that took root, but more like a combination of things.  It started with an article I read in the Boston Globe one morning, about a teenage boy who was driving drunk and accidentally hit a female police officer who was on the side of the road during a traffic stop.  The woman was paralyzed, and ended up dying a few years later.  I saw a picture of this kid in the paper, and he looked so stunned and devastated.  He seemed to be just this regular kid trying to live his regular life, but he made a series of bad choices one night that changed his life—and obviously that woman’s—forever. And I wondered how someone so young could manage to move on with his life from that point forward.  How could he deal with all that guilt and trauma?

Q:  So how did the boy in that news story become the Henry David in your story, a.k.a Hank?

A:  Like that boy, Hank had a devastating trauma occur in his life.  The way his mind dealt with it was to unconsciously close off access to the pain, for his own protection and survival.  But this ended up shutting doors to his memory.  So even though he knew about the world in general, he couldn’t remember who he was or where he came from.  And since the only possession he had on him when he woke up at Penn Station was Walden by Henry David Thoreau, he took the name of the writer and figured the book was a clue to his true identity.

Q:  Why did you choose Walden and Thoreau?

A:  Another excellent question.

Q:  I know.

A:  I think there are several reasons for this.  First, I was born in Boston, and although I’ve lived in many places in my life (including Long Island, NY and the Chicago area), I always seem to come back to the area in and around Concord, Massachusetts.  Something here speaks to me.  When I first spent significant time in Concord, I was in my early 20s (not that much older than Hank) and lived for a summer at my uncle’s house, trying to get my life figured out after weathering a huge amount of chaos (in short, I was striking out on my own to make a new start with no job or home or even roots to speak of).  Uncle Ray’s house was right in town, within walking distance of the places I discuss in the book, including the library and Walden Pond.  I spent many hours at that library researching work options or writing in journals (and staring at those spooky statues who talk to Hank in the book), and I also found a whole lot of comfort in the woods, walking around Walden.  I guess it was a natural leap for me to make, to think of a young person finding clues to his (or her) identity in this particular place.

Q:  That explains the part about Walden and Concord.  What about the Thoreau connection?

A:  When you live in the Concord area, you sort of absorb Thoreau.  It’s hard to explain.  But if you walk around Concord, you’d be surprised how many streets and buildings and schools are named after him.  He’s a local treasure known around the world, and people here are incredibly proud of that.  And let’s face it, if you take the time to read what he’s written (once you get used to the flowery mid-1800s prose), chances are you’ll come to two conclusions:  one, the guy could be incredibly cranky and opinionated.  And two, a whole lot of the things he said then, still apply now, and in some ways more than ever. Like in his essay “Walking”, he wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  I believe that, one hundred percent.  Nature (“the wild”) is what’s real and simple and good, where things make sense, and we need more of that.  It’s the stuff we’re made of, after all.  It feeds something in us that’s hungry.  Starved, sometimes. That’s the best way I can describe it.

Q: Nice.  And not surprisingly, I agree.

A: Plus, “The Dead Poet’s Society” is one of my favorite movies, and I’m sure there was some influence there as well.  (Live deep and suck out all the marrow of life! Carpe Diem!)

Q:  This might be a good time to end this interview.

A:  But I was just getting warmed up.

Q: Well, we can do this again sometime if you’d like.

A:  I would!  Next time, maybe you can ask me about the inspiration behind the character of Thomas, the tattooed Thoreau interpreter/historian.  Or why music played such an important role in the book.  Or why I chose the town of Naperville, Illinois to be significant in Hank’s life.  Or why Hailey always wore mismatched socks and earrings.  Or even details about my daily writing routine.

Q:  What daily writing routine?

A:  Look, I don’t need to stay here and be insulted.

Q:  So is this where you flounce out of this interview in a huff?

A:  Nah.  Flouncing is so…undignified.  I’ll storm out instead.

Q:  Just say goodnight, Cal.

A:  Goodnight, Cal.

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The Secret Life of a Bookseller

Books are my life.  I read as much as time allows, which is never enough.  I write them (did I mention that my first young adult novel, Being Henry David, comes out March 1, 2013?).  And I also sell them, working part-time as a bookseller at a fabulous independent bookstore called Willow Books, in Acton, MA.  There, I spend blissful hours shelving new releases, recommending books to customers, writing the weekly newsletter, and chatting about books (and life) with a staff of incredibly smart, funny people. Yes, I love my job.

While working at a bookstore is not the most lucrative career move, it definitely has its perks.  Getting my hands on new books before they hit the shelves, that’s one.  Turning customers on to an author they will ultimately love, that’s another.  And then there’s watching small children who can barely see over the counter buy their first books with handfuls of coins, and older kids whose eyes light up when they discover we have the latest book in the series they adore.  The grown-up reader kids come in too, with that same aura of excited anticipation.   There’s something so gratifying about ringing up a book, tucking in a bookmark, and knowing the person in front of me will soon be immersed in a magical world that exists only on the book’s pages and within the imagination. Did I mention I love my job?

Now, before I reveal the “secret” part of a bookseller’s job, I need to address the elephant in the room.  Let’s just get this out of the way right up front and be done with it.

People are aware—and nobody more than booksellers—that the world of bookstores is dramatically changing.  If we don’t have something in stock and offer to order it, some people like to hurl the word “Amazon” at us, like that’ll show us a thing or two.  Take that, small independent bookstore. Then people come in and ask if we have e-readers or their accessories.  Uh, well, no.  We sell books.  The old fashioned kind.  That’s what we do.

For the record, the folks at my store, including (especially) the owner, don’t have our heads in the sand. We know what’s up, and we honestly recognize the value to customers of Amazon and e-readers.  On occasion, we use them ourselves.  We just believe there’s room for everybody at the table. Sure, the pessimists out there are saying traditional bound books and the bookstores that sell them are marching toward extinction.  I disagree.  Instead, I’d like to quote Mark Twain and say (on behalf of books and bookstores everywhere): “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  Long live books, dammit!

There.  That’s my rant.  Now I’m done.

Back to “The Secret Life of the Bookseller,” and a (somewhat) intimate glimpse-behind-the-scenes.  Sometimes, booksellers are called upon to be freelance therapists-of-sorts.  People come in seeking books on, say, divorce, or strange ailments, or (yep) sexual dysfunction.  It is important to assume a professional demeanor in these instances.  Especially if you suddenly realize you know this person, from the PTA, the neighborhood, or church.  (Yes, this has happened.)  Awkward.

But it’s okay, I promise, because there is a professional code at work among booksellers, a pledge of confidentiality.  Your secret is safe with us.  We will not judge you if you buy graphic novels instead of history books, romances over classics, or Fifty Shades of Grey instead of Doctor Zhivago.

Just come in.  Buy books, read them, and come back.  I’d like to keep my job. Because, did I mention, I love my job?

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Filed under Books Are My Life