Doug's Blog

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).

When the real & fictional Katie Henochs met

I have a true story to tell, about a made-up character and a real person who have the same name. The story ends with me, the writer who thought up the fictional character, spending a night in the teenage bedroom of the real person, who’s now grown up and off living her life.

In 2007 I had a young-adult novel called Falling published that I’ve described as a combination romance, sports, and detective story. It centers on Matt Shaw and Katie Henoch, ninth graders who meet in an online chat space, and instantly feel a connection — then Katie is startled to realize that they go to the same school. To everyone there, Matt is a mystery: he has always been the best basketball player in his class, but now it’s spring and all winter he has refused to step into the gym, touch a basketball, or tell anyone why. Instead, after school for months he’s been walking the streets of his small, working class New England city after school, listening to his music on his iPod and avoiding his house, where his beloved older brother has begun to deal heroin.

Before long, Katie Henoch and Matt Shaw are walking together and falling into first-time love. But Matt makes it clear that if Katie wants this relationship, she can never ask about his family or his home life, or visit him there. Katie, bright-eyed and always curious, goes against her nature by agreeing. At the same time, things are starting to disappear from Matt’s upper-class home, and soon a woman police detective is asking him questions. Isn't Matt, after all, the one in his family who’s hiding something?

In early 2011, four years after Falling came out, my high-school friend Gary Henoch, whom I hadn’t heard from since graduation — he had gone to college in Utah, and sort of disappeared — was visiting with his two daughters, Leah and Katie, at their grandfather’s home in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

“I think it was my junior year of college so I must have been 21,” the real Katie Henoch wrote to me recently. “I was on my computer and somehow started down the rabbit hole that is googling yourself. I was surprised at how an old (not so great) poem I wrote in high school was on there, and then links to the the website for the nonprofit I started, some pictures from my college improv troupe website, and then my full name in an excerpt from your book Falling. And that caught my attention!  

“I said to my dad, ‘Look, my name is a character's name in a book!’ My dad was like ‘What?!’ So I told him it was a book by someone named Doug Wilhelm. He said he went to high school with someone of that name, and how crazy this would it be if it was him.

“I think my first reaction was no way — but we quickly figured out that it was you and we all were amazed.”

In the email that I got a few minutes later from Gary, he wondered: had I named my character Katie Henoch because I remembered him? I wrote back that it was possible; I had always wondered what happened to Gary Henoch. Soon after, we met for dinner at a pub in Brooklyn, and I learned that he’s had a great career as a cameraman and cinematographer on film documentaries, shooting around the globe for Nova, National Geographic, and many others. His two grown daughters still appear occasionally on “Sesame Street,” in video pieces Gary shot when they were girls.

Later in the year that she found my Katie, the real Katie Henoch and her closest friend, Lia Heaney, traveled to Tanzania to volunteer at a tiny nursery school for children affected by the HIV epidemic, because they were infected and/or they’d lost parents to the disease. The school is called TUPO, for Tumaini Positive Test Club, and Katie and Lia came to know all the students and their stories. They found a nearby primary school that TUPO kids could attend, if they had sponsors — so Katie and Lia created a nonprofit, Chance for Education, and back home they raised the money to send seven children to school.

You can see a wonderful photo of Lia, Katie and those seven kids here, at www.chanceforeducation.org/#c0e/wordpress. Their project is still raising funds, and is making a difference for more HIV-affected children. To learn more — and, if you'd like, to make a donation — visit www.chanceforeducation.org.

A couple of weeks ago, I had two meetings near Lexington, Mass., where Katie grew up and where her dad still lives. I drove down from Vermont to stay with Gary, and wound up putting my inflatable bed on the floor of Katie’s childhood room. With its shelves of her mementos and her interesting books on theater and other topics, the room had the sweet, sad feeling of having hosted a rich childhood, and teenage life, that’s now in the past. 

“I graduated UMass Amherst in May with a B.A. in theater and have now moved into my G-pa's place in Chelsea,” Katie writes. “I want to be an actor and am here taking classes and building up my resume and reel. My older sister and I are working on a script for a short film we're shooting in the spring, and to make money I've been babysitting for a couple families in the city.

“How rare,” she adds, that “you've stayed in the room of one of the names of your characters!”

It is rare. And it makes me think how fictional characters can have a life, of sorts, and sometimes they can matter — but only a real person, writing or acting or reading, can bring a character to life. And only real people can make a genuine difference in the world, the way the real Katie already has.

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Tuesday, 17 September 2019

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