Sunday, May 24, 2009

Copenhagen, the summer of 1971 Part one

In 1970 you attended New York University, principally for the student exemption that kept you from being drafted to fight in the War in Vietnam. Like so many government policies then and now, this was an example of the extraordinarily unfair advantages most well-to-do whites enjoy(ed) at the expense of minorities and the poor, many of whom, in 1970, could not afford to send their children to college.

(Above is your American Youth Hostel card circa 1971. Click on any of the photos to see additional fun details.)

Finally, just when the war was winding down, and the need for troops was dwindling, the government decided it was time to introduce a “fair” draft based on a lottery system. And why not? At that point it was unlikely that the children of the rich and powerful would be sent to Vietnam anyway. The lottery was held and you were not chosen to be drafted. You finished the semester and dropped out of college.

After spending the spring of 1971 at the Twin Oaks Commune in Louisa, Virginia, you decided to head for Europe. You bought a backpack, a sleeping bag, and a plane ticket.

For the next two months you hitchhiked around the continent, had lots of wonderful adventures, and eventually wound up in a sort of tent-city for vagabonds outside Copenhagen. One early June afternoon you visited a park in Copenhagen and started to chat with a young American college student. She was visiting her boyfriend, who lived on a ship in the port, and she invited you to come for dinner. You did, and stayed for more than eight months.

The Fyrskib XIV was a wooden lightship built in the 1890s. A lightship serves the same purpose as a light house. It is anchored at sea to function as a beacon for sailing ships. Large, bulky oil-burning generators once occupied her amidships, and her thick stubby masts were designed to hold huge lamps, not sails.

Shortly before the second world war the Fyrskib XIV was towed into the harbor (you assume the Danish were not inclined to help the Germans navigate). There scavengers stripped her of her brass and copper fittings. Eventually she sank and spent a considerable amount of time underwater before being brought to the surface and purchased by a young American named Arno (see Remarkable coincidence below) for $3,000 in 1970 dollars. Arno’s dream was to clean her out, fit her with new masts and an engine, and sail her around the world.

Since you had nowhere to live in Copenhagen, Arno invited you to stay on the ship if you would help refurbish her. Tired of traveling, you eagerly agreed. Arno and his friends (close to a dozen adults and children lived on board) were somewhat older than you, all talented musicians, and extremely smart and interesting people. By day you hammered rope-like okum between the thick oak planks of the deck, then poured hot marine glue over the oakum. In the evenings there was wine, talk, and music. They taught you the rudiments of guitar.

(This was the left side of the galley. For 8 months you slept in one of the curtained bunks in the background. The light is coming down from above through hatches replaced with heavy clear plastic. )

As the summer wound down, a decision had to be made. You’d all done a lot of work on the ship, but it mostly consisted of cleaning and waterproofing. The next step – making the Fyrskib XIV truly seaworthy -- would require professionals. One day Arno arrived with an older white-haired gentlemen who walked with a limp and smoked a carved wooden pipe. No one had to tell you he was a former sea captain.

The old captain limped around the boat and appraised her. He said she’d need a diesel engine, a drive shaft drilled through eight feet of solid wood keel, new masts and fittings, electronics, and thousands of square feet of sail. But ultimately, he reported, it wasn’t practical. She was “a heavy lady to dance with,” the captain said, a vessel that had been designed to sit at anchor, not to sail.

Within weeks, the number of residents aboard the ship dropped from a dozen to three. And, quite unexpectedly, you were left in charge. For the next six months – fall, winter, and early spring -- it was your job to keep the Fyrskib XIV safe, and afloat.

Remarkable coincidence: While you were living with Arno on the Fyrskib XIV in Copenhagen, back in the United States your parents were moving to a new home, one house away from Arno’s parent’s home. You would imagine that the odds of that happening would be one in billions.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Wish You Were Dead

You have returned from a terrific week in Vancouver, WA., across the Columbia River from Portland, OR. If anyone owns any Columbia Sportswear (jackets, shirts, shorts, etc.) the company that makes it is named after the river.

The Pacific Northwest is beautiful, the air robust and clear, the vegetation lush. You have never seen such bright red rhododendron or orange azaleas.

Just before you left for the journey, you received 500 business-size cards from your publisher promoting your next book, Wish You Were Dead, your first “pure” YA thriller, which will come out this October. Along with the cards was a note from your publisher urging you to distribute them to likely readers.

Being a dutiful author, you took a bunch of cards with you and began handing them out, but immediately encountered a bit of a problem. Business cards are a way to network and promote oneself, but can one really accomplish that when the card you hand out says, “Wish You Were Dead?”

Oh, well.

It was a great trip. Your host, Carol Mackey, and her husband Charles, were gracious, generous, and delightful company. They took wonderful care of you (even inviting you to their home, cooking a delicious meal, and then demolishing you in every Wii game known to man ;-).

Every media specialist, librarian, and school administrator you met was equally accommodating, friendly, and helpful. At Frontier High School you were invited to leave your mark on “the column of fame,” where the esteemed authors, Sharon Draper and Jack Gantos, had their marks before. This was a humbling experience, not only because Draper and Gantos are seriously well-known major award winners, but because Gantos actually has artistic talent, and Draper has a lovely, swooping autograph – attributes you severely lack.

Luckily there was a young lady in the library with artistic talent – and she was a surfer as well! – who was willing to help you. The result is here (thanks, Rachel and Kelli!).

Friday, May 8, 2009

One Book, One Community

You are headed out west on Sunday to spend the week in Vancouver, Washington (not to be confused with Vancouver, BC) where they are conducting a One Book, One Community program focusing on Give A Boy A Gun. You will be speaking at libraries, and at middle and high schools.

You were out in that area last fall when, in Portland, you gave a breakfast talk to school librarians and media specialists from Oregon and Washington. Portland is definitely a cool city. The public transportation trolleys (MAX) have special hooks in them where cyclists can hang their bikes. You were also told that the city of Portland distributes free bikes, painted yellow, that anyone can use. What would happen if New York put out yellow bikes for people to use? You have no doubt thieves would repaint and sell them.

By the way, the conference served an excellent breakfast of blintzes and sausage. One of the best conference breakfasts you’ve had. And, you highly recommend the rather titillating hand driers in the bathrooms in the Portland Convention Center (for those who go in for that sort of thing).

Library conventions are fun because you get to hang out with all these people who love and know books. You also get to meet cool people and other writers. On this trip you met Peter Hautman, who wrote Godless, a YA novel about religion that won the National Book Award (how cool is that?)

You have also written a (unpublished) YA novel about religion. It wasn’t very good and probably doesn’t deserve to be published. So it was interesting to meet someone who succeeded spectacularly where you had failed. Even better, Peter is a nice, down-to-earth guy. You didn’t get to hang out with him for long, but he is definitely a writer you would look forward to speaking to some more.

The dinner speech that night was given by Frank McCourt, whose book, Angela’s Ashes, was a huge bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize. To be honest, you had once started the book long ago and quit at the point where McCourt’s third young sibling died, because it was just so unrelentingly sad. But at dinner, McCourt was the most charming, and funny speaker so when you returned to New York you listened to Angela’s Ashes on CD (which he reads aloud).

Once again you reached that sad point and were tempted to stop, but you listened onward and were rewarded with a wonderful tale. So wonderful, in fact, that you listened to ‘Tis and Teacher Man as well. McCourt is definitely one of those authors whose own reading adds enormously to the enjoyment of listening.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Can't Get There From Here and YouTube Videos

You’d been thinking of writing about Can’t Get There From Here (Asphalt Tribe in German) and then someone sent you this link to a YouTube video, which was apparently done as a school project.

When you went to look at it, you discovered other YouTube videos regarding you and your books. (PLEASE SEE BELOW)

You got the idea for Can’t Get There From Here after giving a talk at a conference in Denver, Colorado. On the way back to the airport your host asked if you would mind stopping briefly at a homeless shelter so that she could drop off some food left over from the conference.

Without really thinking too hard, you assumed the homeless shelter would be a place for “older” homeless types. But you were wrong. It was a homeless shelter for teens, some of whom were runaways, and some of whom were “throwaways” -- kids who’d been thrown out of their homes for various reasons. You had some time before you had to be at the airport so you asked for a tour of the facility. The next surprise was the sleeping quarters. There were two separate dorms, divided by sex. The dorms formed a V and at the bottom of the V was an observation room with windows that looked out into both sleeping areas. This way one person of authority could watch the teens all night. One of the conditions for living at the homeless shelter was the understanding that the lights were kept on low all night so that all who slept there could be observed.

This got you thinking and wondering about how big a problem homelessness among teens might be. And that led to the research that ultimately led to the book.

One interesting aspect of the story that you sometimes wonder about, and suspect might make a good sequel, are the homeless “club kids,” teens who spend their nights in dance clubs and their days sleeping wherever they can find a bed, couch, or floor. Anyone who’s spent time in New York, Miami or Los Angeles, has probably seen these kids without realizing it, since they tend to dress in the latest fashions and hardly look homeless. I once heard one of them say, “We may not have beds, but we wear fashionable threads.”

Videos about Todd:

Another video about Can’t Get There From Here:

There also appear to be a number of videos about Boot Camp and The Wave in both English and German.

Mr. Bill says, “I’ve got way more videos than Todd. Check out this one.”