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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.

The roots of a story

I don’t get a lot of decent story ideas. Sometimes it seems like I wander on a dry landscape for a long time, just hoping to spot one that might catch on, that I might help to root itself and grow. Here’s the story of one that did.

Some years ago I was looking to move beyond an adventure series, for young readers, for which I had written eight books and which was close to the end of its many-volumed run with Bantam Doubleday Dell (though the series, Choose Your Own Adventure, has been revived with an indie publisher, and I wrote another book for it in 2011). I was searching for a story idea when I got involved in a family intervention. This involved a parent who, living alone then, was in bad and worsening shape with alcohol.

Doing an intervention meant we’d have professional guidance in a managed encounter, whose goal was to get the parent into treatment that day. It wasn’t my idea, but I got the urgency, as we all did — and afterward, I was the one who drove our parent (I’m being vague about this obviously, even though both my parents, both alcoholics who did achieve sobriety, have since passed away) to the addiction-treatment hospital. It was a two-hour drive. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and on the long way back it struck me how much suspense this whole thing had involved. When you grow up in an addicted family, what suspense comes up is usually grim and day-to-day, around the unspoken question, What’s going to happen?

And when something unhappy, confusing, and/or upsetting (it’s usually all these things) does happen, there is no thrilling climax or conclusion. As Claudia Black writes in her excellent book, It Will Never Happen to Me, “It is Tuesday night. Or it could be Wednesday, or maybe Thursday. But nothing in particular happens.” There is no revelation, no confrontation, no lifting of the veil or saving of the grace; it’s a confusing way to grow up, in which the most obvious truths are never ever told or mentioned. And that doesn’t make, generally speaking, for a good story.

But an intervention. Here at last is drama, with rising suspense that’s pegged to a particular date, a fast-approaching confrontation when you will do what you've never done or been allowed to do: speak the truth about the elephant in the room of your childhood. I was 30 before I ever put the words “alcoholic” and “parent” together in my mind. I was 40 when we did the intervention, which didn’t actually work in a long-term way, though the parent did later get sober. I’m about to turn 61 now, and my young-adult novel The Prince of Denial comes out in two weeks.

The idea for this book began to take root on that drive back from the hospital. I started thinking about a boy, not the boy I had been but a seventh grader whose parents have recently divorced. He’s living now with just his father, and he’s been pressed into the role of cleaner-upper and cover-upper for his dad’s drinking and drug use. And when we first meet Casey he is loyally denying, to his best friend and to himself, that anything is wrong at all. And to him it isn't wrong, because this is the "normal" that he has always known.

The secod root of my story is in the national estimate, cited in Claudia Black’s book, that “almost one in five adult Americans (18) percent lived with an alcoholic while growing up.” As a freelancer, I had done some editing work for a drug-abuse prevention program, and I understood by then that I wasn’t the only one. I had the sense that so many kids are growing up confused about this, often thinking it’s their fault, as I had, and that they’re the only one.

So the second root of the story took hold when, hoping to feed this idea soon after the intervention, I sought out a woman who worked with adolescents at my Vermont county’s nonprofit mental-health service. I told her about my idea, and asked what she thought. She said there are a couple of nonfiction books on this subject, aimed at adolescents — but when you’re a kid committed to a denial system, when it feels like that's your life vest in a very deep sea, you’re not even going to look at a book like that. You’re just not.

“I wish there was a story I could give some of these kids,” she told me. “I wish I could say, ‘Here. This is a good story. Read it and let’s talk about it.’”

The Prince of Denial is not my story, or my family’s; it’s the story I would like to put in some of those kids’ hands. It has taken years to reach the point of publication in this form. The book comes out October 7. If you think it might be interesting or meaningful or or useful to you, here's the link on Amazon. I hope you will give it a try.

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