What is Greyhound about?
Greyhound is the story of an eleven year old boy named Sebastien Ranes who is abandoned by his mother as the book opens and we find her dropping him off in the Stockton Greyhound bus station to travel across country, unaccompanied, to go live with his Grandmother in Altoona, Pennsylvania over 2500 miles away.
I’ve been working on Greyhound, both in my head and on paper, for about twenty-five years. I have boxes of journals in my garage detailing many of the stories that are in the book, thoughts I had back then when I was travelling back and forth by bus, and other small details that made the book have a strong sense of authenticity. I guess I would be considered what some call a diarist. I don’t write events down everyday and then time-stamp them, but I do have a tendency to keep plugging away data into tiny books that sometimes resemble stream of consciousness and sometimes have a concise crumb trail.
Most of the experiences that are in the book are events that actually happened and have taken place in my life, writing about them within the confines of three hundred pages isn’t so easy, but I felt compelled to write about those days. Those years were a very difficult time for me, and pulling a lot of those feelings forward again brought out a lot of feelings that I had buried. A few of the themes I covered like stuttering have a more elusive and artful interpretation, while the theme of smoking, or my displeasure of people who smoke, has a more direct and obvious message.
Several of the characters in the book are modeled after personal experiences and many of the conversations that are had, especially those regarding Daryl Hall are conversations that I’d both heard and had myself as a child. Writing about much of this was an incredibly rewarding and therapeutic experience for me. I’m very satisfied at the result of greyhound and thankful for everyone that helped bring it forward since the first moment it was birthed into its first-draft form.
Was the Marcus Franklin character a real person?
Marcus was a real person that I met on the bus. I’ve thought quite a bit about my experience with him and the conversations that we had into the middle of the night. When you’re young, it’s the simplest and kindest of gestures that have the most effect and create the most lasting of memories. A bag of pretzels can be the equivalent of much more over the passage of time. Not having good role models growing up, or any rather, I often found myself reaching outward for a guide or role models from external sources. Those are often the most dangerous because they have a limit as to what they can give back to you. Those limits are not always visible, especially when you’re young. Not having a father, I spent the majority of my adult life searching for a suitable alternate, and never succeeding, it shaped me from the character you read about in Greyhound who feels like he’s turning into a mannequin to the adult who actually became Pinocchio later on.
In coming up with the last name for Marcus, because I had no idea of what his real last name was, I landed on Franklin because it was the middle name of one of my favourite actors, Avery Brooks. It’s actually his middle name. Marcus was, for me, much like the way I’ve seen Avery Brooks in different things over the years. I saw similarities in my memories of Marcus in Brooks many times. Both Marcus Franklin and Avery Brooks came across as men definitely greater than the sum of their parts; and that message alone, to convey to the viewer and the reader, is a very powerful one. I think we often take things like that too much for granted or even fail to recognize them at all.
Why did you set the book in 1981? Is that version of America gone forever?
I set the book in 1981 because it was a period where life was very different than it is today and in more ways than can be imagined in books or through culture. Some people may not remember it that well, or not have lived though it but many have. The most important facet of that time was that it was the beginning of the modern world as we now know it. The world was in a cataclysmic upheaval in the early eighties whether people realized it or not, and it truly was the dawning of the culture that now seems to have shaped the last thirty years from music, film, clothes, literature and even speech. Most of our transmutable information that we share had its birth during this period.
It’s hard to say if it’s finally waning, as people have a tendency to hold on tightly to the past and love again all things retro. But the eighties was an era of ‘analog communication’ versus what we have today, which is digital. From telephones to records, everything was analog then and it had an effect on everything it touched. People were forced to make more direct links with each other, reach out, touch and feel the world around them. There was a need to verify the space in front of them. Today’s world seems to ask us repeatedly to do the opposite and not verify our world at all, but mainly because our world-view has become much more fragile and our personal stake in life fraught with intense peril. 1981 was surely a pivotal time in American History and will probably be regarded as such the further we move from it.
In reading Greyhound, you may feel and recognize direct similarities with current time, but that’s because the problems people face are the same and timeless. Finding compassion and friendship and dealing with intense personal isolation is something that we’re far from understanding and dealing with even on a personal basis.
Hall & Oates figure into the story as well, almost like a backstory. Did they have an influence on you growing up?
I believe 1981 was the zenith of that era for a lot reasons. Hall & Oates figure into the story because they, too, had hit a high-water mark in their career and it was hard to go anywhere and not hear their music or see their faces in advertising. Their music dramatically effected me as a kid not just because of the catchiness but because it may have been some of the first music that I had heard that made me realize that there was much more going on in music than just what was on the surface.
The music of Hall & Oates has endured quite nicely and has even begun to make a resurgence in the last number of years. I keep seeing more and more references to them in films, music and literature. The sounds they created were a definite touchstone for many of us, and young people are still discovering them today, which adds to the legitimacy of what they offered up.
I thought Hall & Oates served the story of Greyhound well, because the book is very much the same way. You can very quickly read this book in one setting and enjoy it, or you can read it at a slower pace and digest much more information as I’ve purposefully layered information in the book to make people think. Some readers might think that my technique of layering is a tactic, or a something done after the fact to pepper the book, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. These are some of the first thoughts I had when planning Greyhound and having several things going on at once is just the way I write. Hall & Oates, and many other similar elements, were always supposed to be a part of the book. I wanted to have a thread about playing Chess, one of my other loves in life, but as the book came out and onto paper, I couldn’t find a place for it and thus had to scale back my intentions. Not everything goes according to plan.
The book focuses on Stuttering, is this something else from your childhood?
I stuttered a great deal as a child, and was teased intensely for it. I struggled as an adult to break free from it, not just because it is probably the most mentally debilitating and frustrating experience I think a child can have, but the stigma of it is unbearable. When people hear you stutter, they’ll immediately shut down and dismiss what you have to tell them -- even if you’re trying to tell them the chemical formula which may be the cure for cancer. Stuttering immediately makes people uncomfortable and they tune you out. It’s a sad fact. It won’t matter how important your information is either, they’ll think you’re stupid and turn away. It may sound harsh, but as a society we’ve been led to believe that stupidity and stuttering go hand in hand. Sadly, that just isn’t the case. If you are reading this and you think my words are ‘politically incorrect’, then you probably haven’t stuttered or felt the stigma or isolation of it. I haven’t read much material over the years that purposefully covers this or does the reality of it justice, but I think it’s something to be addressed.
I also do not give you the reader, the affliction of stuttering in obvious spoonfuls like some bad tasting medicine or in some base, pulp-fiction manner. I’ve done it in a way, if you’re paying attention, that you’ll experience stuttering, as a reader, the same way someone who stutters experiences it. Internally and with frustration. Having continuous sections of staccato dialogue is only the smallest part of stuttering and just the tip of the iceberg. It was always my hope to shed light on this struggle in this book and I hope that you can do your best to look for it. If you read this book and think that I’ve forgotten my plight as a writer to elucidate this information, just do me a favour and look closer. It’s like ‘Choose your own Adventure’ or one of those fantasy role-playing games. You shape the story you read here not by what you expect but by what you actually see and experience. I’ll leave it at that.
Do you have any regrets about that period of your life?
Other than surviving it? It may sounds defeatist or nihilistic, but many times I’d wished I hadn’t. I have lots of regrets. I’m just being honest here. I think that’s just the perspective a young boy who continually takes a beating by the world at large would feel, and did feel. That little boy, Sebastien Ranes was me and still is to this day.
I’ve always maintained firmly that anybody that says that they don’t have any regrets, is not only full of themselves but either in denial or lying to you. I’ll also add to that, that those kinds of people should be avoided, too. We all have regrets. The real question is whether we are mature enough to admit them to ourselves and to other people. If someone says ‘life is too short to have regrets,’ I’d say watch your step. Life is too short not to meditate on our wrong turns, our failures r our fears.
I once heard that motivational speaker Brain Tracy say ‘Success is across the sea of Failur.’ It’s true. You cannot have success in life if you haven’t met with failure, lots of it in fact. And just because you succeeded on the 560th attempt to do something doesn’t mean that you don’t regret the time spent struggling through the other 559 tries. It’s just not plausible. Joy gives way to the realization of ‘was it worth it?’ People who chase obsessions and meet their ‘goals’ often tell, very wisely, that it is not worth it. Everything has a cost and the price of it takes a heavy toll on us. Some will understand this fully, while may not. It’s like staring at the drawing of the woman looking into the mirror. What do you see?
Those years of my life took a heavy toll on me, no doubt. Things will never be what they probably should’ve been and I can’t expect everyone to understand the real hell that some of us go through to get out the other side. It’s not like Shawshank Redemption where you see Tim Robbins wearing a nicely pressed white shirt and cruising the coast in a red convertible. Most of us get through hell and come out alone, shattered and definitely in some state of shock. That’s just the bare-faced facts of it. I’ve done my best to recount those days to you. It may come across as foreign, or even too mature at times, but in those days I was forced to be mature and detached, wooden and flinching. I think many others in my similar situation, who read this book were, too. Surviving through trauma removes all the innocence from a person and starts to wallpaper over all that is missing with cynicism, self-loathing, sarcasm, heightened personal awareness and an unhealthy dose of self-sufficiency that is often more frustrating than rewarding.
Are their certain things that you’re afraid to write about, or certain things that you won’t write about?
Sure. Most of the things I see in my sleep at night are unfit for the printed page. I think I have a total of eight or nine more books about young Sebastien in me. After that, I may switch to either Science-Fiction or the genre known as Dystopian Fiction. My life has many unhappy days and twisted turns that people would scarce believe, but the truth is, as always, life is stranger than fiction and always will be. The more advanced we supposedly become, the more complex our stories unfold. Unlike the mode of storytelling in the classics, we cannot rely upon mythical beasts or Gods on mountain tops to elucidate our points.
I’m also afraid to write about many specific things from my life, too. As I bring back some of these stories to the surface there’s the reality that other people who are involved in my life and other people I know sometimes want to see themselves in the roles of the characters. But that’s the rub. Sometimes, no matter how much you tell someone that the character they’re reading about is not them, they’ll read into your words, your tone, believe what they want and run with it. It’s the nature of the beast and that’s for better or worse. Often times it’s for the worse and has pain involved. Some people you’ll just never reach and you’re probably not meant to, either.
Did you always want to be a writer? Did you always see yourself that way?
Hahaha. Are your kidding me? Absolutely not. I never saw myself as a writer growing up, although I knew that I was going to write from a young age. When I was coming up in my teens and early twenties, the big struggle for me was to keep fed and to keep a roof over my head and to stay out of trouble. That was difficult enough. Some people might be reading this and thinking that there’s not much special about that, because we all emotionally go through that, but with me, I often failed to do those things and I was on my own. I spent years not knowing who I was, or where I was going; and I don’t mean that in a figurative sense either.
I spent a lot of time just trying to stay alive and get off the streets. I also had a very healthy fear of winding up in prison and I did everything I possibly could to avoid that. Thankfully, in that, I was successful. Everyday for me was a struggle and I’m blessed to have the life that I live now and I appreciate it. But during those many dark hours, I was writing. I was working on my books and a few times the only possessions I had was my writing. Literally. Looking back, that’s a pretty sad statement, but it was what it was.
My mental perspective of what a writer is, or that lifestyle, was probably something glamorous like the Hitchcock version of Carey Grant. My mind had fantasized some Nuevo-rich single bachelor, living on the Med wearing yellow dress shirts, eating breakfast on the veranda, suntanned and well-womaned, sporting a twenty-four hour Cheshire-cat grin. That might sound incredibly romantic, but that’s the way I formulated it and it was about as far from reality as you could get, or at least in regards to the life that I was living. I still haven’t achieved that and I doubt I ever will, because our fantasies are not supposed to meet up with real-life. Some people write about that, some people try to live for it instead. I’ll take the latter.
Do you plan the material out before writing? What goes into creating a story like Greyhound?
Well, like I’ve said before, all the stories I write are true. I’m not writing memoirs, mind you, and I do fictionalize them as needed, but I have enough personal experiences from my real life that I don’t actually have to make stuff up if I don’t feel like it. I have enough material that could keep me going for the next twenty years or so but the story has to be compelling and compact and perform a certain amount of magic, otherwise it’s journalism.
When it comes to the text and the message, I know exactly what I want to say with every book and I know what the hidden sub-plots are going to be and what subliminal messages I want to send out, too. But when the act of writing occurs, I’m like a train flying ‘above’ a set of tracks far off the ground. I can see it all below me, but the vehicle is definitely doing its own thing.
Stephen King frowns on stuff like this, but I’ll readily admit that I plot and plan everything out that I’m going to write about. I have boxes of stuff that gets tucked away into my garage every time I finish writing a book. From detailed index cards that cover the walls of my office, bedroom and bathrooms (plural), to diaries, notebooks, sketches, stacks of photographs that I’ve collected from people, sources online and even ebay. I tend to get a bit obsessive with it. These are the things that keep me writing when it feels like it’s the hardest thing to do and they keep me focused when it’s flowing. One day when people are tripping over grocery store book racks of my stuff, maybe I’ll change, but I’m far from that point yet.
Greyhound was something that I wrote very quickly. I actually had pneumonia and was in pretty bad shape during the period where I wrote the last 150 or so pages. I’m shocked I didn’t get sidetracked and give up, but that’s just how a burning desire forces you forward when you’re in the thick of it. I’m glad it came out the way it did and I think I did honor to both my characters and the subject matter of Greyhound itself. I was honored by an Editor over at Penguin Books (ahem, lol) who said that ‘It was an Elegy to Greyhound’. That’s great marketing when your competition says something that fantastic about your book. They should blurb it on the back cover.
Some of the material in the book is pretty heady for an eleven year old boy turning twelve. Got anything to say about that?
I grew up in England and I’m the product of the British educational system, so that will always be an influence upon everything that I write. I had read Tolkien, Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle completely and numerous times by this period in my life, so by no means was ‘Steffan Piper’ a dull child. My downfall was just in my ability to express these things outwardly, even though I struggled hard to do so where others didn’t really have to. My upbringing reading the classics however, laced my day to day diction with archaic and Victorian words like ‘bounder’, ‘hansom’ and ‘gaffer’. I once stuttered over the word ‘miasma’ in class and was teased about it for over a year. They put it to My Sherona: “M-m-m-my miasma!” The obvious and painful reality of being a kid seems like an everlasting motif.
When I was ten, Sherlock Holmes was my all time hero. Maybe it was the easiness with how he held himself against the solitary nature and the isolation of living amongst mortals that was so accessible in that material that I found appealing. I think it was the same for Dicken’s Twist as well. These were themes I very quickly recognized and latched onto at that age. Shortly after that, when I was twelve reading Carlos Castaneda, his books definitely changed my life. The idea of releasing and letting go of your self-image, during a period of my life where I was supposed to be finding that out, was alluring, and I knew better, too. I gripped onto Castaneda for dear life for about four or five years. I read those books so many times, I probably scared a few counselors at school, lol.
During the editing we discussed some of the language as well and we edited the language down dramatically. One of the editors railed in a spirited discussion that a twelve year old wouldn’t use the word ‘Cacophony.’ Sadly, I buckled. A few weeks later, I heard that word and few others I took out, spoken by none other than Spongbob Squarepants. For the record, Spongebob is geared for five year olds. My heart broke like a piece of dry wood in fall, if you were anywhere near me, you might’ve been able to have heard it.
I think when we start thinking as adults that we need to limit material to what we believe young people are capable of, or is normal to them, we immediately have done them a disservice, because most of them would probably shame us in regards to what we know, or think we know.
I had a handful of early readers tackle Greyhound and several were teenagers and few around the age of young Sebastien. All of them loved the book and found it intelligent and provocative. I was told that they had wished that more books were written like this and spoke to them so clearly. While a few of my British readers wondered why I was using American spelling, understandably, none of them thought the language was out of place for the character.
I have a belief that if the adults that read this book made a list of the words that they think that a twelve year old boy doesn’t know, hasn’t heard or never used, I’d say take that list and go stand in front of a seventh grade class and watch how quickly you get laughed at and lovingly escorted back to your car. If I read those books that had so much meaning to me when I was that young, and you read those same books when you wee that young, then it goes without saying that they have and will, too. The ultra-American precept of ‘I’m the only genius in a room of dullards’ is disturbing. We just have to recognize that we have to work at not being cynical. It serves no purpose and sucks the joy from the room faster than missing a bus in the rain.
Greyhound comes out April 20th, 2010 published by AmazonEncore.