Photo: © Courtesy of the Author
About the Author
Q. What was your inspiration for this story? Is the book autobiographical in any way?
A. I was doing research for a prison literacy project and kept reading about kids whose parents were locked up. It was pretty heartbreaking stuff. I started thinking about what that would be like–having a parent go to jail–and the story kind of took off from there. But not much about this book is autobiographical. Brett reminds me of a few people I’ve known over the years, but I think I’ll keep that to myself.
Q. Brett can be a pretty obnoxious guy. Was it easy to ‘channel’ him in the first person?
A. Brett masks a lot of pain through a kind of blunt and sarcastic sense of humor. I don’t think I’m quite as obnoxious as Brett can be, but I definitely deal with trouble by finding the humor in it. It can be a good way to deal with things, so long as you can be serious when you need to be. I think Brett’s problem is that he has a hard time ever slipping away from his sarcastic outlook. There are times that he’d definitely benefit from a more sober take on things, but he can never quite resist cracking a joke. As for channeling him in first person, I’d say that once I had a good sense of Brett’s personality and voice, it was pretty easy to write from his perspective. I think it’s a little like being an actor. Once you’ve inhabited your character, you can see the whole world through their eyes.
Q. Brett’s observations about his parents are so real– for example, when he talks about how we’re nicer to everyone else’s mom than to our own. When you write, do you draw on your own childhood or try to observe teens today?
A. I actually don’t spend too much time trying to get into the mind of a teenager, mostly because I think that teens face the same kinds of problems as anyone. For instance, in the case you mention, Brett cares a lot about his mother–he worries about her, wants her to be happy, etc.–but he doesn’t treat her very well, and definitely doesn’t treat her as well as he treats his friends’ mothers. Brett is pretty confused about this gap between his feelings and his actions, and it makes him feel guilty. This gap (and the guilt that follows) is pretty universal, in my opinion. I think most people wonder why they don’t treat people they love better. I definitely wonder about this. At any rate, in this respect, when I was trying to figure out Brett, I’d say I thought more about myself as I am today than what I was like when I was younger.
Q. What was your first job? Were you as unhappy as Brett is at Fast Burger?
A. My first job was delivering newspapers in northern New Jersey. I actually liked the job a lot. I kept it for two years and never got in any fights with my boss. Different from Brett, I guess. I think Brett’s problem with Fast Burger is that he’s never had to do anything he didn’t want to. Pretty spoiled. But Brett’s a good guy–deep down–and he just hasn’t learned very much about the world yet. When he becomes a pool cleaner he changes, mostly because he’s got a guy like Alfie to help him along.
Q. How did you become a writer? What do you like about writing?
A. I’m not really sure how I became a writer–it’s actually something I think about quite a bit. I sometimes think that I was just trying to get out of having a regular job. Writing is funny because it takes a lot of discipline and yet constantly makes you feel like you’re lazy and irresponsible. That is, sometimes it feels like a very difficult and time-consuming occupation, and other times it feels like I’m just goofing around.
As for what I like most about it, writing a book is a lot like reading one–once you get involved in the story, it becomes addictive. You can’t wait to see what will happen next. I really enjoy following my characters through their various escapades and adventures.
Q. When you write a book, do you have the whole story in your head before you begin? Did you know from the start that Alfie would die?
A. Frankly, I didn’t even know Alfie was a character until Brett bumped into him while walking home one day. (I hate to admit that, but it’s true.) I think that when you’re starting a book, the important thing is to have some sort of solid sense of your narrator, or main character. Once that’s set, you can put him in almost any situation and the plot will kind of unfold on its own. People appear, the story changes, new situations arise, but you’ve still got the same, central person who’s trying to deal with it all.
Q. Do you ever start writing a book and not finish it? Any stories that you knew were doomed from the start?
A. I mostly finish projects before I realize they’re doomed. I think the important thing is to be able to move on. Most writing is a kind of trial-and-error process, and the more time you spend wringing your hands, or polishing up something that’s never going to make it, the further you’ll be from publication. The other thing is that you have to be honest with yourself. Waiting around for an editor to tell you something is no good is not a smart idea. You’ve got to be willing to shelve your own work, no matter how much effort you’ve put into it.
Q. After his dad goes to prison, Brett vows repeatedly to never to let his guard down again. Do you think this is a theme that many readers can identify with?
A. I think most people are pretty guarded about a lot of things, whether they realize it or not. It’s hard not to be– there are lots of ways to get hurt. The one thing about Brett (and I think this is true for most people) is that even his most carefully constructed defenses are pretty easy to tear down in certain situations. Brett acts like a tough guy, but by the end of the book, he reveals that he’s just as sentimental and vulnerable as anyone else.
Q. Do you ever think about Brett’s future?
A. I think Brett has big plans for himself, and making lots of money is definitely on the list. But I don’t know if he’ll succeed or not. Obviously, people’s desires change from minute to minute, so who knows what he’ll want by the time he finishes high school? I am pretty sure that he’ll have a good time running the pool-cleaning business, though.
Q. In the book, Brett experiences two traumatic events in his life–the imprisonment of his father and the death of Alfie. Do you think he would ever have learned what he does without these events?
A. I think that it’s important to see things from as many perspectives as possible. I’m not sure pain itself is all that helpful, but major life changes tend to let people see things in new and different ways. But there are lots of ways to find a new way of thinking about something without watching your dad get carted off to prison. Even stuff as simple as music and books can teach you a lot. But there’s no question that Brett’s world kind of melted away the day his dad went to prison–it’s hard to face a thing like that without learning something.
Q. Why did you want to write this book for a teen audience in particular?
A. I was working for a publishing house, writing teaching guides for popular young adult novels. I liked a lot of them, and thought I might be able to write one myself. I had published short stories in the past, but never a novel, so this was my first crack at a longer piece. But it seemed to fall into place pretty easily. As for teen audiences, the best way to write for them is to forget that they’re teenagers. When books for young readers don’t succeed, it’s usually because the author is too conscious of his or her audience. Good stories will fly with all kinds of people–young and old. Frankly, I hope that anyone could read Pool Boy and get something out of it.