Bob Nuse and Anna Van Scoyoc are librarians in the Mercer Country Library System. Which I believe is somewhere in deepest, darkest New Jersey.
I first encountered Bob in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, many of us in the children’s book world were trying to figure out how to proceed, how to connect, how to keep the book thing alive — and, yes, how to contribute something positive to this awful situation. I made a bunch of videos and created a Youtube channel. Bob began by enlisting authors to make short videos for their locked-out library patrons. That initiative eventually grew into a podcast, “Behind the Books,” which is extremely well done and incredibly impressive.
I hope that other librarians take note of the possibilities (and contact me if you need a guinea pig).
When Bob invited me to talk about my new book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, I didn’t hesitate. After all, I have a face for podcasting. I hope you give it a listen. I’m on at about 14:30, so you can skip that other stuff and jump to yours truly. It’s a ten-minute conversation. We also talk a bit about my book of linked haiku, All Welcome Here.
I’m usually somebody who can’t stand to look at or hear myself — I was on “The Today Show” once with Katie Couric, long ago, and I’ve never watched it. But here, thanks to Anna’s expert editing, deleting all my stammering, fumbling mutterings, I come off as sober and reasonably intelligent. I can live with that!
I assume you might need to open Spotify in order to listen. Not sure about that. Thanks again, Bob and Anna, I’m grateful for the work you do.
In my new book Upstander, I gave myself the opportunity to learn more about Mary, a minor (but crucial) character in Bystander.
And by “learn more,” I guess that I mean: “make up more.”
It’s all just stuff I make up, right? Characters don’t really talk to me, and heaven knows the books don’t write themselves.
But in a way, once a character is introduced, and participates in some scenes, that character does seem to take on a life of her own. If A, B, and C are true . . . then it organically leads the writer to D and E.
Obviously the writer is making choices all the time. Mary doesn’t exist except in my imagination. Until you read the book, and then she exists (and transforms) in your imagination, too.
Anyway, I decided a lot of things about Mary that I didn’t need to address in Bystander. We enter her home; meet her family; see her interact with new characters; learn that she used to play softball and keeps a stash of marshmallows in her room; and so on.
She’s also creative, artistic.
Here are two moments that show that. The first is from page 93:
Mary set out her art supplies. Paper, brushes, watercolors. She painted a seated female figure, facing away, balancing a stack of rocks on her head. It was a strange, almost magical image and it pleased Mary to make it.
So here’s the deal. Once I decided that she should paint something, I had to figure out what that something would be. I looked at my college-age daughter Maggie’s artwork and selected an image:
If it was good enough for Maggie, it was good enough for Mary. Not that a reader would ever see it, or even think much about it. The iceberg effect, once again.
The other scene just shows the way Mary thinks. And I loved that image of her floating in the pool, goggles on, head in the water, starting on page 127. It was a way to get into her head, explore her liquid thoughts . . . and also, at the very end of this section, to restate another important theme of the book, the need for us all to be seen . . .
It was such a calming shade of blue-green. Soothing, peaceful. Mary drifted on an inflatable pool mattress, her head hanging facedown in the water, wearing goggles and a snorkel. She gazed deeply at the bottom of Chrissie’s pool and thought of all the names she remembered from acrylic paint tubes and other places: turquoise, olive, emerald, cadmium, mint, lime, sea foam, lagoon, teal. She settled on aquamarine, which was basically green with a bluish tint. It was the color of the pool that she was absorbing into her bloodstream through her eyes. A serenity seeping into her body. Mary had earrings that were aquamarine gemstones, a color she avoided during the gray winter months. But for August afternoons in the blistering sun? Perfection.
Chrissie and Alexis were lounging side by side, content to find themselves returned home after thirteen epic days on the Jersey Shore. Upon seeing their friend Mary again, they squeezed her tight and said all the best, gushy things—but Mary sensed the connection between the two girls was stronger than ever. They were rock-solid besties, and nothing would come between that. Their bond felt like a wall through which Mary could never pass. To her surprise, it upset Mary to feel like an outcast. It wasn’t logical, but a feeling was a feeling, not subject to notions of “right” or “wrong.” Some unspoken part of her simply wanted to belong. She’d felt sad lately and wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was just everything. So she floated on the water, letting her thoughts drift to that cruel idiot Griffin Connelly, and Chantel, and, always, Jonny.
Everyone said it was better that he was living on his own. Yet Mary’s imagination kept her mind racing at night—a nervous, stressed feeling she couldn’t push aside. She woke up in the morning and felt tired. Everywhere she turned, Mary felt disconnected, as if she were fading into the background, as if she were absorbing the colors and designs of the carpets and wallpaper. Could she become a ghost, too? How come no one saw her, really saw her, anymore?
Junior Library Guild Selection.
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It’s not a simple thing, selecting the right excerpt to share. So many factors to consider. The selection can’t be from too late in the book, too riddled with spoilers. But you don’t want the isolated excerpt to mislead the reader into thinking, Oh, so that’s what the book is about! Because, obviously, it’s about so much more. This is but one chapter out of thirty-eight.
When reading aloud to large groups, I tend to go with two options: 1) Something funny, or 2) Something dramatic. I think curious fans of Bystander might particularly enjoy Chapter 11, which details the origins of Griffin and Mary’s relationship. But I didn’t go with that here. Instead, we’re early in the book, a look into Mary’s home life. Is that the heart of the book, where our main character is more witness than participant? An innocent bystander watching the struggle between her brother and her mother?
Sigh. Who knows.
Will six people even read this? Instead of “Who knows,” maybe I should have typed, “Who cares!”
The chapter below is just a taste of the writing, I guess, and some of the themes explored in the book. It’s a domestic scene, centered around a kitchen table. And that does feel right for many of my works of realistic fiction. I’m fascinated by closely observed moments that take place in families, the literature of the kitchen table.
It is summer, school is soon to begin, and Mary makes the mistake of entering her own home . . .
Walking home, Mary resolved not to think about Griffin Connelly. That boy had jangled her nerves. We have a connection. Yeah, right. She looked forward to popping a marshmallow—or, okay, three— into her mouth. Not at the same time, of course. Eating marshmallows always helped bring her world into balance. Namaste, Mary thought, grinning to herself. She imagined a chubby marshmallow, with little stick arms and legs, doing yoga. Downward dog, maybe, or meditating. That might be funny to draw. Ohmmmm. If she could think of a clever caption, it might even be a cartoon: the mindful marshmallow.
Mary kept a secret stash of marshmallows in the back of her bottom dresser drawer. The big, extra-fat ones they sold at Stewart’s for s’mores. Marshmallows were Mary’s weakness. But, seriously, that wasn’t the best way to express it: a weakness. It’s not like Mary wolfed down an entire bag in one sitting. It wasn’t a problem; she wasn’t in a marshmallow crisis or any- thing. Mary knew that sugar was super bad for you— everyone saw the same videos in health class—but a couple a day wasn’t going to kill anybody.
Mary then made the strategic mistake of opening the front door. Home sweet home.
Her mother’s voice came from the kitchen, sharp and urgent, “Are you high right now? Just tell me.”
“Jesus, Mom, no!” Jonny shot back.
They were fighting again. It felt as if the air in the house was crowded with charged particles. Mary could sense the electrons and protons ricocheting off the furniture like steel balls from a shotgun. The muscles in her lower neck tensed and tightened.
“You’re lying—” her mother shouted.
“Hi! I’m home!” Mary called out in her sunniest voice. It was as much a plea as a greeting: I’m home; you can stop now, please. Mary heard the rattling of dishes in the sink, the scraping of a chair across the floor, but no greeting in response. She waited, slipped off her sandals. This is ridiculous, she decided. I’m in my own house. I live here.
“If you love me, you’ll stop.” It was her mother’s voice, raw with emotion.
“I told you. I’m not using,” Jonny retorted.
Mary stood at the entranceway to the kitchen. Her mother leaned against the counter, arms crossed, scowling. Jonny sat at the table, cereal floating in a bowl of milk. He wore an unbuttoned cardigan sweater. Yes, in August. The rules of this particular contest: no punching, no kicking, just words. Winner takes nothing. Jonny tapped a spoon in agitated rhythm on his right thigh. That was his giveaway. The way his eyes darted and his body vibrated with pent-up energy. The muscles of his jaw tightened from clenched teeth.
“Don’t come in here, May,” Jonny warned, not looking in her direction. “Mom’s acting like a crazy person again.”
There was a prickly edge to his voice, like razors strung across wire. His hair looked oily and uncombed. His pale skin appeared nearly translucent, except for the dark circles under his eyes. Mary thought, Don’t pretend I’m on your side. I’m not your ally, brother. I’m not on anyone’s side.
“I don’t even recognize you anymore,” her mother said. “This isn’t you, Jonny. It’s not you.”
“Oh, Jesus, here it comes,” Jonny muttered, the spoon rat-a-tat-tatting against his leg. He raked a hand through his hair.
Mary’s mother stepped toward her only son, palms open. “You’ve got to listen to me, Jonny. We can’t go on like this.”
Jonny flicked the spoon into the cereal bowl, splashing the milk. The spoon bounced and rattled to the floor, hitting his mother’s leg. “I’m trying to eat one bowl of cereal in this insane house,” he roared. “So freaking what? I slept late. Lots of people do. Besides, I have a stomachache. It hurts. I probably have an ulcer. Do you even care? Besides, what temperature do you keep it in here? I’m freezing!”
“It’s set at seventy-two degrees—”
“It’s too cold. I get the chills living here. It’s ridiculous, Mom. I’m nineteen years old. I party a little bit. A regular, normal amount. It’s one of the few things in the world that actually feels good. That’s my big federal crime, Ma? That I go out with my friends?”
“Your friends,” her mother scoffed. She brushed the thought away with a wave of her hand.
“Yeah, my friends.” Jonny rose to his feet, his movement sudden and alarming. “Real people who actually care about me.”
Mary stood paralyzed, watching it all. They had forgotten she was there. She had become invisible in her own kitchen.
Mary’s mother stepped back. She brought a hand to the side of her head, trying to collect her thoughts— or to keep them from exploding. With obvious effort, she adopted a softer voice. More soothing, calmer. “Jonny, please, listen to me. Please. You need help. I think you have a prob—”
“Oh no. No, no, no. I’m not going back to that place,” he said.
Her mother held out a hand, patting the air. “Okay, okay, just . . . sit . . . okay?”
“You can’t make me. I’d rather die than go back to Western Winds,” Jonny replied. He sat back down. Swiveled his head, stared coldly at his sister. “Good luck when I’m gone,” he said. “It’ll be just you, Mom, and the Garden Gnome in this demented house.”
The Garden Gnome was Jonny’s nickname for Ernesto, their mother’s boyfriend. Ernesto was short and paunchy, and he wore a scraggly, elfish beard. Not his fault, but those were the facts. Mary stifled a grin. She caught herself and flashed a time-out sign with her hands. “Stop,” she said. “Just stop.”
She crossed to the refrigerator. Grabbed two clementines, checked her phone, looked from her mother to Jonny. “I’ll be in my room,” she announced. “Headphones on.”
The book was Stoner by John Williams. At the end of the book, he describes in detail the quiet moments of a dying character. It’s a brilliant passage, the last four pages of the book: a profound, moving description of the dying of the light.
I thought of my mother, who died on July 31st at age 95. I felt her last hours, imagined anew that experience, and tears filled my eyes.
And you know what?
I was grateful for that book. For that trigger that came without warning.
The beauty of a novel, just one of the beauties, is that you can stop reading. You can close the book, think your thoughts, manage those emotions on your own terms.
If we have deep feelings about events in our lives, those memories are going to be triggered somewhere, somehow. A cardinal alights on a branch and it reminds you of someone. The smell from a teacup. An empty park bench. There’s no hiding from the triggers, no way to avoid remembering.
John Williams in Stoner wrote an achingly beautiful scene in which the main character passes from the living. Inch by inch, moment by moment. For me, while it brought tears, it also gave solace.
I am heartened and enriched that books can stir us so deeply.