Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

The Book that Opened My World

I can still see the seventh-grade desk and my Scheaffer fountain pen, with the ink cartridge and translucent blue barrel. I must have had a number-two pencil too, because we were taking a standardized test. I finished early, so I opened a book, read about places I had never been, and began to dream new dreams.

I still have that book. It was my dad’s: Seven League Boots, published in 1937, the fifth collection of author Richard Halliburton’s colorful travel adventures. Halliburton disappeared in 1939, trying to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific Ocean. Today I have all of his books; over the years I’ve found them here and there. But it was Seven League Boots, retelling Halliburton’s adventures in the Caribbean, the Caucasus Mountains, the Soviet Union — and following Hannibal’s tracks on an elephant over the Alps — that changed my life.

I was a lonely seventh grader. I just didn’t fit in the little world I knew. Halliburton showed me there are all kinds adventures and discoveries to be reached for out in the world, no matter who you are. His first book, The Royal Road to Romance, opens with a photo of the grinning author in shorts and a white turban in front of the Taj Mahal and a dedication to his four Princeton roommates, “whose sanity, consistency and respectability ... drove me to this book.”

All of Halliburton’s once-famous work is infused with that buoyant, just slightly defiant good humor. Going with him in Seven League Boots, I visited the awesomely massive ruin of U.S. Fort Jefferson far out in the Dry Tortugas, discovering its story of unjust confinement and rampaging fever. Together we interviewed one of the assassins of Russia’s last czar; we met some descendents of 12th century Crusaders who’d been marooned for centuries in the Caucasus with their swords and helmets and armor; we conversed in a desert tent with Ibn Saud, the towering and near-mythic creator of Saudi Arabia; we visited Mount Athos, the Greek monastery island that had been closed to females, of all species, since the days of Byzantium — and I’ve never forgotten the horrors we beheld on Spinalonga, the island off Crete that was one of the world’s last leper colonies.

Halliburton was often dismissed or belittled in his day as a popularizer, even a fantasizer — yet decades later, his detailed account of the assassination of the czar and his wife and children would be proven correct. And he could write! Here is how he opens that account:

Lying prostrate in his bed, desperately ill, Peter Zacharovitch Ermakov, one of the three Bolshevik officers who, on the night of July 16, 1918, murdered Czar Nicholas II of Russia and all six members of his family, poured out with semi-delirious violence the whole dreadful story of the slaughter of the Romanoffs.

Nobody else penetrated the layers and decades of Soviet denial and obscuration, traveled to Ekaterinburg east of the Ural Mountains, and persuaded Ermakov to tell that terrible story. Halliburton did.

And here’s one of the greatest lead paragraphs in all human-interest journalism — the one that opens his chapter “The Oldest Man in the World”:

“He’s been drunk for the last hundred and thirty years,” sighed the great-granddaughter of the old Caucasian soldier who was seated before me clutching a vodka bottle. “I’ve given up all hope of reforming him.”

By the time I finished Seven League Boots, the world looked different. I was different. I was no longer wholly imprisoned by seventh-grade meanness and pressure to conform; I had glimpsed with opening joy a living globe that was vast, vivid and wide-open to an adventurous soul — and I wasn’t the only one. In the depths of the Great Depression, Halliburton “thrilled an entire generation of readers,” said a publisher who later reissued The Royal Road to Romance.

In the depths of our depression and bewilderment today, we could use another writer like him.

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A SNAKE INVASION giveaway

Through Rafflecopter, the publisher Chooseco is giving away signed copies of my newest book, Snake Invasion, an interactive novel for young readers that I think is pretty scarey — and that could really happen! Here is the link to the giveaway … and here’s the story of the story:

There’s nothing more fun, when you’re in the right mood, than a good creature feature.
    I remember hiding under couch pillows, thrilled by terror, as Saturday night TV’s “Chiller Theater,” hosted by Zacherly the Cool Ghoul on New York City’s Channel 11 in the 60s, showed classics like “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
    So last year when the publishers of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, for which I’d written nine previous interactive novels, asked me to try a new project tentatively titled Snake Attack, I said heck yes! And I read some books like Nathaniel Benchley’s Beast (whoa), and watched some newer films like “Anaconda.”    
    And I had fun! I think you will too, if you check out my newest “Choose” book, Snake Invasion (we made the title more creepily realistic), which just came out this spring.
    Whether books or films, creature features work best when they’re built on a premise that's just believable enough to make it hard to sleep at night. So our concept for Snake Invasion is that you — the Choose books always center on “you,” a main character through whose choices the multi-ending story unfolds — are a kid living in a giant new subdivision that was built on a filled-in edge of Florida’s Everglades.
    What you don’t know at first, and neither does anyone else, is that the gigantic Burmese pythons, an invasive species that really is overrunning the Everglades (some estimates are that half a million of the creatures may be living there, with no natural enemies) have eaten all the wild prey in the world’s largest wetland.
    So now they are coming for the pets.
    And among the first two disappear is your little dog Zelda, who is snatched by a ten-foot python from her invisible-fenced pen in your backyard.
    You and your best friend Jackson, who spots the huge snake slithering toward the water with Zelda in its jaws, set out on a quest. Searching for your beloved pet leads you into a brace of moonlight adventures and scary predicaments, out in the gator-infested wetland at night — and among pet-attacking pythons by day.
    I won’t tell you what happens, but Snake Invasion has 13 different endings — and I had a great time researching what really might happen, if (as some experts predict) the huge, hungry snakes do clean the Everglades out of its raccoons, opossums, bird eggs and other vulnerable species, and come looking in nearby neighborhoods for more living food.
    If this sounds like a story for you, or for a young reader you know, the publisher Chooseco has just extended a Snake Invasion book giveaway through Rafflecopter. Here again is the link!
    Each copy is signed by me. I hope you’ll win one. And if you read Snake Invasion … I do hope you’ll survive.

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The library with a stuffed tiger

The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.

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Watching Bernie, from way back

I first met and interviewed Bernie Sanders when I’d become a Boston Globe correspondent covering Vermont from Montpelier, and he’d just been re-elected mayor of Burlington. Over the years I’ve spoken with him a number of times and seen him many more — and like most all of us here in Vermont, I’ve always seen him in the same damn shirt.

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Words from another age of fear

“I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear.”

That’s how the writer E.B. White began a still-celebrated letter to the New York Herald Tribune on November 29, 1947. Ten men from the world of filmmaking — screenwriters, directors and/or producers — had just been convicted of contempt of Congress, and given jail terms, for supposedly sneaking Communist propaganda into their work. In levying the charges, the House Unamerican Activities Committee had given no supporting evidence.

White was worried, much as many of us are worried today.

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A president, a ball ... and a book

Early on in in Alexander Wolff’s new book The Audacity of Hoop — Basketball and the Age of Obama, there’s a photo of a ten-year-old boy and his dad. The setting is San Francisco airport. This is the last time Barack Obama will ever see his father, who abandoned the family when his son was an infant and had only now come back, to visit, for Christmas.

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What to tell a young teen who wants to write?

Because I’m lucky enough to do a lot of author visits to middle schools, I very often meet young people who are seriously, intently interested in writing — and often are writing; a sixth grader I met this week told me he’s working on a 500-page novel. (Whoa!) On almost every school visit I’ll get asked what advice I can offer.

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The songwriters: McCartney's "no rules"

At his old school in Liverpool, Paul McCartney teaches songwriting. “And the first thing I say ... is, ‘Look — I don’t know how to do this.’ And it’s kind of true. Because every time I approach writing a song, there are no rules.”

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The songwriters: Jackson Browne's basement

The other day I bought “Looking Into You,” the double CD that’s a tribute to the early songs of Jackson Browne — and whose cover photo shows a roughly made wooden door, opened to a room that looks to be dominated by an upright piano. I’m assuming that’s either the actual doorway into the basement room where Jackson, young and struggling in LA, actually wrote his early songs, or else it’s meant to look that way.

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When a story helps a kid find courage

I was interviewed online last week about my novel The Revealers, which deals with middle-school bullying, and about the effort to address that issue in schools that I've been plunged into since the book came out. My conversation was with ConvergenceRI, an online public-affairs newsletter in Rhode Island that is published every week by Richard Asinof, a lifelong journalist, writer and friend with whom I went to high school and worked on the school newspaper.

Richard asked some great questions! The full interview is here, if you'd like to see it. Here is the last question, which (as I hope you can see) really got me thinking:

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Until they took her away

I’m right in the middle of Suite Francaise, the celebrated, unfinished novel by the late Russian/French writer Iréne Némirovsky that transports you into the turmoil of French civilians’ experiences as the German army overran France in June 1940. It’s been said that this book is the first great literary work to have emerged from the war, because Némirovsky composed it in the midst of everything; she was deported from Paris to Auschwitz in 1942, and soon after died of typhus there, at age 39. 

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Maybe we need to hang up ... and be

Louis CK is a comic who tends to capture things, and in a few words recently he capsulized what an MIT professor, researcher and author conveyed in a 1,600-word New York Times oped. Our phones are wrecking our ability to be real.

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What to leave out

“Omission” is the title of an essay by the celebrated nonfiction writer John McPhee in this week’s New Yorker, and as soon as I saw that I knew I had to read the piece. For me, the key to writing anything that might connect and mean something has always been as much about what you leave out — or take out — as it’s ever about what you put in. This is lucky, because I’m much better at leaving and taking stuff out than I am at thinking of clever things to put in.

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Ending my summer of story: Fatima

For over 30 years I’ve been both fascinated and baffled by the traditional teaching stories of the sufis, Islam’s teachers of the wisdom path. Best known and widely read in collections by the late Idries Shah, these stories have often, Shah tells us, been in circulation for centuries. He usually shares what’s known about their origin or authorship as he passes on the stories in books like Caravan of Dreams and The Way of the Sufi.

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My summer of story: the detective encounter

Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” his first, came out in 1841 and featured an almost magically observant amateur detective, plus his his much-impressed sidekick narrator. Arthur Conan Doyle later based his better-known detective on Poe’s Parisian sleuth Auguste Dupin, and called Poe “the father of the detective tale” in his preface to 1902's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Added Doyle: “The secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is, that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero.”

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My summer of story: Grisham

Without having read his stuff, I used to be snide about John Grisham. How could he be worth reading, I figured, if everyone was reading him? Then I actually read a Grisham novel, and now I have a different question. Why do we tend to assume that a first-rate storyteller can’t be a first-rate writer?
   

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My summer of story: World Tales

“A man once heard that he would attain to wisdom if he could meet the Happiest Man in the World, and obtain his shirt. It took him nearly all his life to find him. And then he noticed that the Happiest Man did not own a shirt.”
    This may be my favorite story — it’s definitely the shortest one — in Idries Shah’s World Tales, a 400-page collection of traditional stories that have each emerged in various different cultures.

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My summer of story: The Human Comedy

I’ve struggled to come up with the simplest way to get young writers going on writing a real story. By “real” I don’t mean non-fiction — I mean a piece of fiction that is a story.
    I’ve tried going super-simple. “In a story,” I wrote on the board, “something happens.” But that was too general, too vague. Then I tried saying, “When your friend asks you ‘What’s up’ and you say ‘Nothing,’” that is not a story — but when you text your friend “OMG! You won’t believe what happened!” you are promising (and you’ll soon be telling) a story.”
    But that didn’t give enough of a sense of what a story is. So lately I’ve begun saying, “First, create a character or two that you really find interesting. Then put them in a predicament. If you do that, then let your characters find their way out, you will have written the first draft of a story.”

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My summer of story: Mockingbird

This is the summer of Harper Lee, in our house and all over. My wife brought home Go Set a Watchman, Lee's new-published novel that was a very early draft of what became To Kill a Mockingbird, the most-read American novel of all time, along with the Lee biography Mockingbird and a copy of the classic novel itself, even though I’d told her I’ve already got one. (She wanted her own.) So I pulled out my copy and read To Kill a Mockingbird again, this time paying attention ... to the story.

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My summer of story: the element of risk

It’s hard to imagine this was over 20 years ago: I was a freelance writer (then as now), and I was pretty beaten-down. I’d spent 10 years on a nonfiction book, a personal story of travel and conversation in Muslim Asia, that had been rejected 75 times and would never be published. In the many rejection letters I had received, some of which were quite thoughtful, one response had stayed with me. I needed to tell a better story. 
    This seemed good advice, but what to do with it?

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