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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous 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.

Addiction fiction: the novel I wrote twice

I’ll always remember the way my dad’s hopeful face fell, when he asked what the YA novel I was working on was about ... and I told him.

I grew up in a family of two alcoholics, both my parents. And though my dad spent the last 30 years of his life sober, he was never able to talk about how his drinking had affected his three now-grown kids. I think it was just too painful. When I told him my book was about a boy whose dad is alcoholic, I could see him struggle to be supportive, as he had always been of my work. I think he was proud that I had a book coming out, but the subject was hard. He tried his best to be positive, but it was never easy.

My mother, in contrast, disappeared the book. Raising the Shades came out with Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2001, and by then my mom was bedridden. Finally sober, she watched TV, played solitaire, and read a lot of paperbacks; but when my dad suggested I send her the novel, I didn’t think she’d want anything to do with it. Still, I mailed a copy. Never got a response. Months later, on our periodic cleaning of our mom’s apartment, I found the book’s dust jacket ... but no book. It was nowhere in the place. I had no idea what she could possibly have done with it. The book just ... disappeared.

Even though Raising the Shades is fiction, not our story at all, I always felt a little disloyal, as if I’d somehow trespassed with it on family secrecy. My two siblings didn’t seem that comfortable with the book, and maybe I never was either. I think the story shows that. Turning on an intervention in which 13-year-old Casey, living with his dad after a divorce, is recruited to play a crucial part, Shades pretty much centers on whether Casey can help his dad get sober. After some twists and hard turns, the dad agrees to go into rehab. A pretty lame ending, probably — and the book didn't find many readers.

My next YA novel, The Revealers, on bullying, connected with a large and still-growing audience; and after that happened, my agent said we should try to regain the rights to Raising the Shades. It was a decent story, she said, that deserved more of chance. Two years ago, having grown frustrated with ever-more-corporate New York publishers and having started my own independent imprint, Long Stride Books, I decided to try. We got the rights back to Shades.

At that point, both my parents had passed away; for better or worse, I think I felt more able to be open. I knew my story wasn’t what it could be, and I knew I needed expert help — so I asked one of my oldest and best friends, Dory Rachel, who is director of communications and marketing for a rehab facility in New Jersey and has spent her life in the addiction/recovery field, to read the novel and help me take it apart.

She did. At a Starbuck’s in Morristown, N.J., we brainstormed what might be a more realistic path for the narrative — and I spent a summer writing what became a largely new novel, especially in its second half. As I worked on the book, which I decided to title The Prince of Denial, I realized that it wasn’t really about Casey’s dad at all. It was about Casey.

When you’re a kid, how do you cope with a parent's addiction? You can’t fix it; and, as Dory pointed out, simply confronting an addicted parent can be dangerous. Casey does confront his dad, in the story — but how that works out, this time, is very different. It’s less pat. I think it’s more real. As Dory said, “This is a story about a kid who becomes able to own his own truth.” 

You always want to write the stories you would have wanted to read. As that 13-year-old, what would have meant so much to me? Nobody ever mentioned alcoholism or addiction in my family. Obvious though the situation was, I was 30 before I ever put the words “parent” and “alcoholic” together in my mind. So how could a novel like this have meant something to me, at 13?

First, it would have to be honest. It could never preach, nor offer an easy-seeming solution. There are no easy answers; but there is the chance, the empowerment, of opening to things as they really are. A novel like that might have helped me to realize what this situation was — to understand it a little, at least, and maybe to realize that it was not my fault.

That would have been big. But to help me see that, first and last, the novel would need to be a good story. Or I would not read it! Because this stuff is never easy. A novel can be powerful, it can open a path to a healing or liberating awareness — but only if it is a good honest story.

So that’s the book I tried to make, this time. And that’s the story of the novel that I wrote and published twice.

Authors now must be self-marketers. So ...
YA fiction on addiction: raising a touchy topic
 

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Thursday, 13 August 2020

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