Catcher’s Keeper

First born, first book

When I started writing Catcher’s Keeper, my oldest was five. He was so little, it never occurred to me that he would ever read it someday. But recently, at age 14, he did. And he loved it.

Reading Catcher's Keeper

Inspired by The Catcher in the Rye, I originally wrote CK for adults — though it’s often paired with Rye in high schools as a YA book (fun fact: Salinger originally wrote Rye for adults too). I may have cleaned CK up a bit if I’d known kids (especially my kids) were going to read it.

I mean, its prose has a toilet mouth. Take the first line:

Not even a week since I moved in with my brother and he’s testing my pacifist nature, butting in on my shit.

And that’s just the first line. (The word ass appears another paragraph down…)

It’s an odd feeling. My son peeled back a layer and saw another side of his mom. One that writes in male voices and curses like a truck driver. Yikes. To say I was relieved that he liked it is an understatement.

Though it was published in 2014, the book has gotten a boost recently. Still a favorite for book clubs, it also resides in several classrooms as a Rye companion. There’s been a slight uptick in sales, which is nice. In November, it was featured on this cool website, Snowflakes in a Blizzard, which highlights and brings awareness to some awesome, lesser-known books.

And hey, the ebook is a bargain at only $2.99!

I’m proud of my first book. But even prouder when I read this from my first born:

I’ve read Catcher in the Rye and I thought it was great. The voice, the conflicts, the hidden messages. But, when I read Catcher’s Keeper, it shed a whole new light on everything. The characters were all so believable as adults, you’d think it was written by JD Salinger himself! That signature Holden Caulfield (now Alden) voice is ever-present, but you experience and feel everyone else in a whole new way. The struggles, the twists, that suspicious MD, and an unforgettable ending makes this book a must-read for anyone who’s read Cather in the Rye. 5 stars. 

Catcher's Keeper book review

Characters make the story

Effective characterization is invisible. In fact, the term “characterization” shouldn’t cross your readers’ minds at all.

Yet, readers will experience your story *through* your characters. Through voice, action, and dialogue. Readers cry for them and laugh with them. Hopefully, readers remember them.

Olive Kitteridge. Auggie Pullman. Miss Havisham. Major Pettigrew. Holden Caulfield. Eleanor Oliphant. Owen Meany. Katniss Everdeen.

What’s the secret to creating memorable characters?

Donald Maass of literary agency fame, has said of David Corbett “(he) is the grand master of character development, adroitly reconciling the complex interplay of forces in every character’s life so that writers can create true depth on the page.”

Before publishing anything, I attended a talk by David Corbett at the 2013 DFW Writer’s Conference in Dallas, Texas. He stressed the importance of secondary characters in overall plot development. (Something I hadn’t given much thought.)

A dynamic speaker, his mastery of the craft clearly evident, he had us all hooked. Bubble charts and diagrams appeared on a whiteboard that spanned the room. Unable to write fast enough, my jaw agape, I kept thinking, “Wow, I want his brain!”

What the heck had I been doing the past decade? Playing with words? Without applying his strategies, I wasn’t writing compelling fiction.

The realization stung.

He signed my copy of The Art of Character, writing out my full name despite the “JD” on my name tag. “For Johannah, whose name I finally got right!”

Needless to say the book is excellent. But be forewarned, it gets beneath the skin. The exploration exercises made me dig so deeply into my own past and my own psyche, I *cried.*

Writer friends, have you ever been brought to tears by reading a book on craft?

Yeah, it was a first for me.

David Corbett also happens to be extremely kind and generous. In my debut, he helped me distinguish the “villain” from the “flawed human being” — in a single-paragraphed email response.

Recently, he gave me the best gift: a blurb for my latest book.

Poignant, compelling, and beautifully written.

His shining endorsement means more to me than a promotional boost. It validates my cast of characters which I painstakingly built using his techniques.

Not only an acclaimed writing instructor, David also is an award-winning and bestselling author with over a dozen novels under his belt. My favorites are Mercy of the Night and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. But more exciting, for me, is his new release The Compass of Character — which will surely inform my next novel and all my future novels.

To learn more about David and his books, visit his website.

Here’s the full blurb from David for Boy on Hold. 🙂

“JD Spero’s Boy on Hold provides an especially poignant, compelling, and beautifully written update on the tale of the troubled child who witnesses a shocking event. Hen Trout and his off-kilter fascination with the world will steal your heart. Equally unforgettable are his stoic mother and all-too-teenaged brother, whose concern for Hen, even as they push through their own daily struggles, is equally moving. This family, under extreme duress, demonstrates how wisdom, kindness, and concern for one another can overcome even the greatest challenges. An utterly impressive debut that reveals incredible promise from this gifted writer. ” – David Corbett

Boy on Hold by JD Spero - mystery thriller

 

Firstborn love

Twice today, I got smiling news from an acquaintance: “I just finished your book!”

Grinning back, I replied, “Which one?”

I know, I know. I am beyond blessed to have to ask that question — which one? — and there was a long, hard, rejection-laden time when I thought I’d never have any book published. No less two.

Catcher’s Keeper.”

Really? Joy ebbed from every pore. Catcher’s Keeper, my firstborn book, still bringing smiles to readers. Through a brief Q&A over our yoga mats, I was transported back to that story. My story. And I was reminded how much I love it.

Since my second release — Forte — in July, my firstborn has been neglected. Gone are the blog tours, the speaking engagements, the interviews… I’ve been busy promoting my newbie. Isn’t that the way it works?

But my passion for my firstborn book hasn’t changed.

We mothers can relate, can’t we?

My first son was almost two when he became a brother. Busy with a new baby, nursing every few hours, swaddling, rocking, burping, changing, pacifying… I had little time to play with my number one. My husband picked up lots of parenting tasks I’d been proud to list as my “Mom” job description. They played games and went out to fun places while I tended to the new baby. I mean, he was brand new! He NEEDED me! And goldarnit if I didn’t love him *just as much* as my firstborn. For the first few weeks and beyond, my husband and I had to “divide and conquer” as they say. But letting go was not an option. I missed my big guy. Our firstborn made us a family. He made me a mother. My life forever changed when he came into the world. He showed me a love I didn’t know I was capable of feeling. After number two was born, after number three was born, and now as he matures into an active young man with a life of his own — a physical distance may grow between us, but my love for him remains steadfast.

A mother’s love for her babies never wanes. It can’t be split or divided. It’s exponential.

Even if our energies are redirected, that bond is always there.

A few weeks ago on a school visit, my host escorted me to a classroom and said, “We ordered 30 copies of your book. So, every class will have a chance to read Catcher’s Keeper.”

“Oh, great!” I replied, hiding my surprise. I’d planned a presentation for Forte that day. Cue the proverbial tap dance in front of the classroom to talk about my firstborn book. Good thing my passion for Catcher’s Keeper is as strong as it was upon publication.

What a gift it was to talk about it again. How I’d missed it!

I’d been so passionate about the concept of Catcher’s Keeper — What if Holden Caulfield were around when John Lennon was shot? — I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep until I had the first draft down. I was obsessed. I couldn’t stop thinking about the story. I couldn’t believe no one had written it yet. I thought agents and publishers would be knocking down my door for a piece of the action. (That last part didn’t happen, BTW). And then, when Forte was in its final stages prior to publishing, that story was all-consuming. I lived and breathed the words. When it was finally out there, I wanted to promote it as well as I could. It deserved that. All books deserve readers. And goldarnit if I didn’t love Forte *just as much* as I loved my firstborn book.

Well, almost.

Catcher’s Keeper will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s what made me an author. It changed my life.

But don’t get me wrong, when it comes to matters of the heart, my family — my boys — have a monopoly on my love.

Case of the Stolen Manuscript

Over a year ago, I read an article in Vanity Fair magazine about how Harper Lee has been royally screwed (my words) out of her fair share of royalties for To Kill a Mockingbird, the beloved, world-famous American Literature classic. The article is worth reading in its entirety, and it implies that her experience was so negative that it prevented her from wanting to publish anything else. When directly asked, she reportedly replied: “Because I wouldn’t go through all the terrible publicity and the strain of what happened with Mockingbird for any amount of money.”

As an author, a teacher, and fan of TKAM, it was a pretty disturbing read. Those feelings are swirling back as I read article after article about a manuscript that was written by Harper Lee eons ago and has been miraculously uncovered and submitted to HarperCollins by a London-based agent. There’s much speculation as to whether or not Harper Lee—at 88 and in extremely fragile health ever since her stroke in 2007—is even aware that her work has been sold and published now that her lawyer and sister, Alice Lee, (known as Harper Lee’s “protector”) has passed away. Regardless as to whether or not “Go Set a Watchman” will satisfy fans of TKAM, it undoubtedly will sell millions. The entire literary world questions whether Harper Lee wants this book out there at all…and whether or not she’ll reap any monetary reward from its sales. The Wall Street Journal recently reported how “Watchman” was presented to HarperCollins, the process suspiciously without author involvement. There is no evidence that Harper Lee does not want “Watchman” published. Agent and publisher claim she is “delighted” that the manuscript has been found after all these years, although where exactly it was found is still a mystery. *(Update: one of my former students sent me this link, which includes a very odd interview with Harper Lee’s editor. Worth a read.)

It’s just too delicious not to speculate…what if this manuscript is being published behind her back? What if it’s been “stolen” from Lee—and is a precursor to more stolen royalties?

How much should author interests be respected here? The literary world is also eager to read uncovered manuscripts of JD Salinger, as outed in the documentary “Salinger” by Mr. Shane Salerno. Did Salinger ever want these manuscripts published? If so, wouldn’t they already be out in the world? Are we so eager to hear from the famously reclusive author that we no longer care? Or, on a more morbid note, now that he’s dead, is it all fair game? (This Buzzfeed article discusses this ‘author intent’ issue. Some of the authors included might surprise you.)

My mom pointed out the similarities between the WSJ article “Harper Lee Bombshell” and the book publication shenanigans in CATCHER’S KEEPER. One of my favorite scenes in my book is when Jerry, during a slump in his screenwriting career, walks into his agent’s office with his brother’s journal under his arm. What happens next is quintessential SNAFU.

This scene—one of my favorites—is rare in that it’s hardly been revised. It’s essentially stayed the same since my very first draft. My writer friends will know how improbable that is! Enjoy…

EXCERPT

“Hey-ya Jerry!” Mitch says over his desk as he hangs up his phone. “Good to see you! Did we have a meeting?” He runs his finger down his planner.

Mitch, my agent, is about ten years my junior and hasn’t got a single strand of grey in his full head of dark brown hair. I used to have hair like that, Janine was always quick to remind me. His shirts—collar always open—are perfectly bleached white, which make his teeth look slightly wan. Other than that, he’s a decent-looking guy, if you’re into Italian types. Some girls go nuts for those dark, intense eyebrows. He’s got an excessive amount of energy, which puts me on edge. But he’s the best in the business and I’m lucky to have him. I just can’t afford to piss him off again.

“No, no,” I say. “I won’t bother you. I know you’re busy. I was hoping to use that spare machine for a while.”

“Yours broken?”

I shake my head. “My brother is staying with me for a bit. He needs to use it. Well, I offered to let him use it.”

Mitch rubs the back of his neck. “Jerry, we reserve that spare for non-local authors who are on deadline. Who have a contract.”

I hear the emphasis. But what can I say? It’s been a tough dry spell since the divorce. And the M*A*S*H fiasco, I don’t even want to think about that. Mitch and I haven’t been the same since.

Mitch weaves around his desk and closes the door. “Hey-ya,” he whispers. “I happen to know it’s available for a couple weeks. You could squat until our next out-of-state author comes in.”

“Really? Wow, Mitch. That is just great—”

“But! Hold on.” He points a hand at me. “You have to work on an approved project. Something I’m going to sell. You can’t just sit and tinker.”

“Tinker? Mitch, you know me. You know how hard I work.”

“Yeah, when it’s your own stuff. You work your ass off on whatever interests you. Someone wants you to make war doctors funny and you get so obtuse, you offend the entire studio!” He waves his arms as if to shoo a school of fruit flies. My skin seems to swell on the spot. Weird how shame makes you feel huge when you want to shrink away. Thank goodness the door’s closed.

“I can’t apologize enough for that,” I say to the floor.

“Nah, forget it. Onward and upward. Whatcha got?” He settles back into his chair and taps his fingers on his desk protector, eyeing Alden’s binder in my hands.

My stomach drops. I forgot I was still holding it. “Oh, this? This is nothing. I mean it’s something, but—”

It’s out of my grip and open on his desk before I can object. As Mitch reads, I start to hyperventilate.

Shit!

I tell a half-truth. “Mitch, I have this amazing idea for a screenplay. I’m sure it will sell on the big screen. Maybe we could get Jackie Earle Haley to play the lead—”

Mitch shuts me up with a wave of his hand. I force myself to sit as sweat collects beneath my shirt collar. Mitch’s eyes are moving at lightning-agent speed over Alden’s binder, but his expression is blank.

He flips to a random page in the middle and reads on. Outside his office door, Nancy the secretary looks in, her eyes question marks. When I go to open the door for her, she retreats, vehemently shaking her head. Please interrupt, I want to say. But she knows better, especially when Mitch is reading something.

He flips to the end and reads back a few pages. I strain to see. I didn’t even get that far. Shit. Poor Alden. I’m so sorry, brother. I’m silently chanting this apology until my tongue goes dry. Maybe I’ll sneak out to the bubbler.

“You son of a bitch,” Mitch says.

My jaw drops. “Excuse me?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! So this is what you’ve been doing? This is what you’ve been hiding from me?”

“Well, no. Not exactly, see. This is a journal—”

“I know! I can tell! The point of view is extraordinary. A kid. A spoiled brat of a kid with a quirky way of talking. He’s funny, this kid. Got an interesting voice. You have a few inconsistencies, I see already, but it might work considering it’s written from a kid’s perspective. Yes, it just might work.” He sucks on the end of his pen, his eyes on the ceiling. “We have to think of a good title. But that will come. How soon can you get this typed up?” He gets up, starts pacing.

My mouth is agape. I should interrupt him, but nothing comes out. It’s been so long since he’s been excited about something from me—

He claps his hands, giving me a start. “Get the first thirty pages to me by the end of the day and I’ll start working on a pitch. We’ll send it out tomorrow to Tracy at Little, Brown.” He slaps me on the back. “Hell, yeah! You’re back, Jerry. I knew you could do it.”

He slides back into his chair and starts typing, his lips pursed and eyes narrowing.

I clear my throat. There’s got to be a way to save this. “Mitch? I was planning on converting it to a screenplay. And I’m not tied to the names. I was planning on changing them.” Jesus, at the very least I have to change the names.

He stops typing—he does not like being interrupted—and glares at me. “Wha? What are you saying? Screenplay? No, that won’t work at all. You’ll lose the voice, which is the best part.”

“Yes, but with a narrator—”

“Fuck, no. Please. What you have here is going to work. Don’t mess with it. Do what you want with the names. I see you worked your own name in there. A little autobiography in every piece is expected. The title, that’s what’s important now.”

“But—”

Mitch cuts the air like an umpire. “No screenplay. Change names. Find a good title. Got it?”

He starts typing again, bobbing his head with the rhythm of it. I feel like I might throw up. He finally likes something I’ve got—wants to sell it—and it’s not mine. What the hell am I going to do?

I start to back out of the office. “Hey-ya, don’t forget your binder, Jerry.” Mitch hands it over with his signature wink. “That’s gold right there.”

Truth about Royalties

First, let me give thanks. To those of you who have read my book, CATCHER’S KEEPER: Thank you! If you happened to have given me a review on Amazon or Goodreads, know that you have given me the best gift you can give an author. Thank you!

Now, many of you are curious to know how my book is doing. A reasonable question, I guess. Some may think it odd that I’m having a hard time finding an appropriate response.

My reviews are good. So far (knock on wood) I haven’t gotten less than 4 stars on Amazon or Goodreads. And most of those reviews are 5 stars—from complete strangers. My overall Amazon rating is a glowing 4.7! Hooray!

Not only is it getting great reviews, it has won multiple awards. Hooray!

As far as my FB friends can tell, it’s doing very well. Heck, I have near strangers congratulating me on the street.

“Your book’s doing so well!”

I smile and thank them. Yes, it’s doing well in many ways.

But when I’m asked the direct question: “How’s your book doing?”…I have to pause. You mean sales?

Yes, they mean sales.

Despite the obvious social faux pas in asking this question (I mean, how many people go up and ask a realtor “How are you making out on commission for that big ol’ house on Main Street?”)

Yet, people truly believe they are celebrating with me by asking the question: “How’s your book doing?”

Well, let me tell you.

Last month, my royalty check was $15.00

$15.00

For one month’s worth of sales.

Way to pay the rent.

DSCN3923

Me holding a recent royalty check. Look closely at the amount! It’s made out for a whopping $6.50!

I’ve been advised by some self-published ebook success stories to enhance my sales. The crux of their advice is to run a “sale” on your ebook and run a promotion on a high-profile ebook marketing engine, like BookBub. I looked into that. For CK, I would have to pay about $400 to give my book away free.

Let me repeat that, I would have to PAY $400 to give my book away FREE in order to promote on Bookbub.

Hmmm….

The idea is that readers will review your book on Amazon and Goodreads, thus helping to get the word out that your book exists, which *might* happen, but—

I would have to PAY $400 to give my book away FREE.

Does that make sense to anyone?

I did my first-ever sale recently. It was kind of a last-minute thing, but I got two high-profile book bloggers to help promote it, plus I did my thing on FB and Twitter, etc. What were the results?

Drum roll please….

I sold 8 books.

8

Which comes to about $11.00 in royalties.

Yes, because I’ve self-published, I make 70% of royalties. Which is great…if your book sells, which mine is not.

I have to say, when I first published my book, I didn’t really care about making money. It wasn’t about that. But I did want my book out there. I wanted people to read it. Because my sales are so abysmal, I’m left to wonder: Will my book languish in somnolence? Will it vaporize into the electrowaves of the internet?

It’s hard to let go, I guess.

It hit home when I attended a bookclub in which a New York Times Bestselling author spoke. When asked the question—How’s your book doing?—she literally knocked on wood and said, “I can finally pay my rent.”

She’s a New York Times Bestselling author!

I have other friends who have been lucky enough to sign with big name publishers for multiple book deals. They all have had to keep their day jobs because they just don’t make any money from their books. Even if they’ve won awards. Even if they have stellar reviews.

In fact, I’ve been warned more than once by many published authors, “You won’t make any money on your books.” They don’t need to add, “unless you are Gillian Flynn.” (Who, I found out the other day, is only 2 years older than me. Color me envious.)

Maybe I’ve lost sight of what’s important, but in my mind, I just can’t reconcile how people spend money these days. What are peoples’ problems with spending money on BOOKS?

My ebook is $4.99.

Thanks to the instantaneous feedback available online, I have been made privy to the fact that people have returned CK after reading it, taking advantage of Amazon’s 5-day return policy. (My feelings about that horrendous policy could fill another blog post.)

But it broke my heart. People are returning it after they read it?

It’s $4.99.

How much does your latte cost at Starbucks? Do you get as much enjoyment out of that latte as you would cozy-ing up with a good book?

Many people would not bat an eyelash in spending $24 on an entrée that will be consumed in less than 15 minutes. Why do people have a problem spending $4.99 on a book that will provide hours of enjoyment?

I recently bought promotional T-shirts for $15.00 a pop to support a friend’s company. I didn’t hesitate to buy two. You could buy three of my books for one T-shirt. I bought six books worth of T-shirts.

Sigh.

A friend from college who I hadn’t talked to in almost 10 years emailed me: “I’d love a signed copy of your book. Please send it to…” Really? Buy your own f’ing copy!

Okay, okay. Maybe I’m being harsh. Maybe it’s the self-publishing stigma that’s making my sales suffer. People don’t take my book seriously because it’s self-published. Is that it, folks? Please, enlighten me. Does the fact that I’ve spent hundreds on professional editors mean nothing? Does my 4.7 Amazon review rating mean nothing? Do my multiple awards mean nothing?

Or maybe it’s priced too high. Maybe people simply value a latte more than a good book. In which case, I’m screwed.

*update! I just got my direct-deposit notification for my September royalties. The grand total = $9.39. That means I sold 3 books in the month of September. Sigh.

Happy Birthday, Lennon.

Today would be John Lennon’s 74th birthday.

I didn’t grow up listening to the Beatles. A child of the eighties, my world was full of Wham!, Culture Club, Devo, and MTV (when they actually played music videos). My brother and I knew all the words to Will Smith’s (aka Fresh Prince) “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” My best friend Wendy and I had a mission to learn every Go-Go’s song ever recorded, and dreamed of starting our own women-only rock band. She and I both learned the very first rap ever — from Blondie’s Rapture. We can still sing it today, much to the delight of our children. I religiously attended Skateland every Saturday, where I would shuffle my heart out to Jam on it by Newcleus time and time again. I idolized Madonna. I thought I had refined taste when it came to music.

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Big hair = big heart. My high school senior portrait. circa 1991

In the summer after my senior year in 1991, I was enamored of Technotronic’s Pump up the Jam, when I got a job at Soundtracks Recording Studio in Lake George Village. At Soundtracks, you could sing along to your favorite song (there were thousands to choose from) and the sound engineer would replace the original singer’s voice with your melodious (or not so melodious) voice. Voila! We made every tourist an instant recording artist.

It was at Soundtracks that I learned about the Beatles. My coworker, Joe, was the person who enlightened me. He explained how the Beatles were the first band to make rock music. At the time, I didn’t understand why that was a big deal. He explained how groundbreaking the style of music was, how they laid the foundation for music as we know it today. He played me song after song, explaining the genius of it. And his passion for this British rock band impressed me so much, I found myself feeling a bit fickle and immature with my affinity for what I suddenly looked upon as “fake music” (electronica).

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We did videos, too! Boy, do I have some (ahem) treasures!

I managed to redeem myself with my mastery of the Go-Go’s and Blondie, though. I think. (Right, Joe?)

Because the unusual circumstances around his death is the subject of my book, I’ve now become a sort of John Lennon groupie. I follow him on Twitter. I’ve liked his page on Facebook. I follow all the cool tributes the world puts in place for him. This week, his “Paperback Writer” guitar is going up for auction. In honor of his birthday, Yoko Ono and Universal Music Group are offering Lennon’s music via streaming channels like Spotify, RDIO, Deezer, and Beats Music. You can also download his Greatest Hits album “Power to the People” at a discounted price.

And for this weekend only (October 10 – 13), you can buy the ebook of CATCHER’S KEEPER for only $1.99! Celebrate Lennon’s birthday by reading my alternate version of history, where Holden Caulfield does his best to intervene Mark David Chapman’s attempt on John Lennon’s life.

Unfortunately, Soundtracks no longer is in business in Lake George Village. I would like to go and record “Paperback Writer.”

 Paperback writer

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

It took me years to write, will you take a look?

It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear
And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer
Paperback writer
It’s the dirty story of a dirty man
And his clinging wife doesn’t understand
His son is working for the Daily Mail
It’s a steady job but he wants to be a paperback writer
Paperback writer
Paperback writer
It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few
I’ll be writing more in a week or two
I can make it longer if you like the style
I can change it round and I want to be a paperback writer
Paperback writer
If you really like it you can have the rights
It could make a million for you overnight
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer
Paperback writer
Paperback writer
Paperback writer, paperback writer
Paperback writer, paperback writer
Paperback writer, paperback writer
Paperback writer, paperback writer

 

Catcher Banned

Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States, although those opposed to the novel were often unfamiliar with the plot itself. Reasons for censorship included: vulgarity, sexual references, blasphemy, lack of morality and familial values, and finally—promotion of rebellion, alcoholic consumption, smoking, lying, and promiscuity.

In Catcher’s Keeper, Alden’s teenage journal is stolen by his brother (Jerry), who publishes it under his name. This stolen, published journal becomes The Catcher in the Rye. In Chapter 24, Jerry is interviewed by a newspaper reporter and addresses some of the controversy mentioned above in the novel.

Jerry’s answers are based on thoughts I’d have as I taught The Catcher in the Rye in an academic setting. Some of Jerry’s answers are based on my students’ reactions to some issues, themes, or symbols discussed in the book. Some answers are how I would imagine Salinger reacting to some of the opposition to his book, as it’s been documented that Salinger was a bit shocked at the attention Catcher received. Salinger had also admitted to its autobiographical content, which I believe was embarrassing to him. This shaped my depiction of Alden and his reaction to his “journal.”


 

Book Excerpt (Jerry’s interview)

(Reporter) “Tell me, what kind of social criticism are you trying to achieve here?”

(Jerry) “Social criticism?” I stifle a laugh. “This could hardly be considered—”

“But you continually use a specific term: phony. You basically accuse others of being insincere and disingenuous repeatedly throughout the novel.”

“Well, my main character does.”

“Yes. Let’s talk about him. Your main character is a loner, to be blunt. Would you say he alienates himself from others or do others alienate him?”

“Um, I guess he alienates himself.”

“Right. From the same society in which he criticizes.”

“Sure. Okay.”

“Some would suggest your main character is condescending, arrogant. How would you describe him?”

“He’s just a kid.” Now I’m feeling defensive. This is Alden we’re talking about. “I would describe him as troubled.”

“Do you worry about backlash?”

“Backlash?”

“Some people—especially parents—may be offended with your main character’s questionable morals and behavior. He lies, smokes. He’s inappropriate toward girls.”

“Actually, I don’t believe his behavior is necessarily immoral. If you look beyond what he says, and look at what he does, you see he’s not a bad kid.”

 

Denied parole

It was all over the news and my Facebook yesterday. Mom even sent me a personal email. Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon, was denied parole for the eighth time by New York authorities. Why this news is relevant to me is probably not a surprise, but the effect of seeing his recent mugshot on the BBC website had on me certainly was. The now-59-year-old man is looking at me. Directly at me. Challenging me. Or, perhaps, charming me.

*chills*

Mark David Chapman is called “MD” in Catcher’s Keeper. I chose to call him by his initials because, honestly, I didn’t want to humanize him. I didn’t think he deserved it. My biggest challenge in writing this book was, without a doubt, portraying a believable Chapman. Initially, I had been swayed by my own bias and created an already-guilty Chapman. But he wasn’t guilty of anything before pulling that trigger, except attempting his own suicide. In my book, he doesn’t pull the trigger until nearly the last chapter. When he comes on the scene, he had to appear somewhat ordinary, with the potential to do something awful. A mentally unstable individual who seemed pretty normal.

How was I going to do that?

I took the advice of character-building expert, David Corbett (The Art of Character), which forced me to do what I had been avoiding and, frankly, dreading: Get into Mark David Chapman’s head. Understand him. Know him. Get under his skin.

I read Jack Jones’s Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John Lennon in just 2 days. It was disturbing, to say the least. Haunting. I learned that Chapman was indeed charming, and was able to charm his way from mental patient to an employee at that same mental clinic—-where he was known to play therapist to other patients while mopping floors. His ability to manipulate was astounding. With almost a serial-killer quality, he could lure people into trusting him, such as the doorman at the Dakota the night of December 8, 1980. That night, he mingled with other fans—-people who also were charmed by him. People who were later completely shocked and taken aback that someone so nice and unassuming could do something so awful.

How does a writer believably convey a living person with such a complex outer persona? Not to mention his impossibly convoluted inner persona…

After painstakingly doing my research, I completely revamped the MD that appears in Catcher’s Keeper.

I wonder what Mark David Chapman would think of him.

Book Excerpt

This excerpt from Catcher’s Keeper introduces Mark David Chapman from the point of view of my Holden Caulfield (renamed Alden). They meet during the book tour for “Jerry’s book” (aka The Catcher in the Rye).


 

So I’m outside having a smoke when this dude comes up to me. I’d say he’s, like, mid-thirties, kind of on the heavy side, with mousy-brown hair and big brown-rimmed glasses. He’s wearing a black trench coat and this fur hat like they wear in Russia.

“Did it start yet? Did I miss it?” he asks me, clutching a book—Jerry’s book—in his hands.

“Miss what? The reading?”

He nods like mad. Even though it’s cold, guy’s sweating. His glasses slide down his nose and he shoves them back. Maybe give the furry hat a break, I would say. But it suits his babyish moon-face.

“No,” I say. “I mean, it did start. But it just started.”

Here’s the funny thing: He touches me on the shoulder, like I just saved his goddam life, and thanks me up and down. I kinda laugh, and he laughs too. It’s the kind of moment that used to link us hippies back in the day—stronger than clothes or drugs or anything else. It was that kind of synchronized laugh.

He tips his furry Russian hat and says in a really bad British accent, “Thank ye! G’daye sir!”

What a goofball! At the same time, I’m grateful, since he totally cheered me up. Dude boogies inside. He has the book in his hand, waving it around like a cautionary flag. Cracks me up. The book just came out and he’s, like, all over it. It’s a miracle anyone’s even read the thing, much less liked it…

* * *

I’m on my way back from the pharmacy, weaving through throngs of shoppers, when some dude thumps his hand on my chest. Stops me dead in my tracks. I look up, kinda ticked. It’s the furry-hat dude! My laugh is automatic—offering that thing that connected us.

“You!” he says, like he just won the lottery. “You’re the brother!”

That stops me cold. “What?”

“The author said, during the reading, he owed it all to his brother, who was out having a smoke.” He points with his hand, which is wrapped in a wrist brace. He’s got a Southern drawl, which I hadn’t noticed before. And his smile—although as broad as the Sargasso Sea—ends with his mouth, like his eyes aren’t invited to the party.

He goes on: “He said it was your story he documented for you. It says in the acknowledgments that you were the inspiration for it all. But it’s more than that. It’s you! It’s you, isn’t it? It’s got to be. Wow. I can’t believe it. I met you before I even met him.”

I cringe inside, wishing a wall of steel between me and that goddam book. I feel my face fall, so I turn away. But he keeps right up with me. I mean, he seems cool. You’d think he would run the other way knowing I was the true narrator of that book. But it’s like it’s a good thing, in his mind. Never thought that would happen.

“And I thought I was late!” he says. “Thank goodness I was late. I may never have met you!”

“Yo, we actually haven’t met,” I say, pausing on the sidewalk to extend my hand.

Furry-hat dude slaps his own forehead. “I’m so sorry!” But he doesn’t look sorry. “I’m MD.” He takes my hand, the Velcro on his wrist-brace scratching my fingertips.

“MD?” I ask.

“No, I’m not a doctor.” He laughs, sounding like a little girl this time, making me giggle too. As if we’re both high as a kite.

“I didn’t think you were a doctor,” I say, still laughing.

“I’m an acronym! Just like your brother. He uses his initials for the book, so I’m using mine. But my wife calls me Mark.”

“Hi, Acronym. Or should I call you Mark?”

We both have a giggle fit again.

“Call me MD. But what’s your name? Do you go by Holden?”

My laughter drops fast as a hiccup. “No, no. It’s Alden.”

Let’s talk, teacher to teacher.

Today is my birthday. I’ve reached an age when birthdays aren’t quite as fun as they used to be. However, I’ve never been one to turn down an opportunity to celebrate.

And I have lots to celebrate.

Last night, I gave another presentation about my creative process, my book, and my experience in self-publishing. It was held at Samantha’s Cafe, where retro décor juxtaposed exposed brick walls, making it feel like a venue in TriBeCa rather than in Glens Falls. We had books there for sale, although many who attended not only had already read the book, but brought it for me to sign. And, although the room could have squeezed in more attendees, the tables were filled.

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With my family as backdrop, I answer an FAQ: How do you find time to write?

Adrenaline kicked in and my presentation took off. I was passionate as ever about the subject matter, and eagerly shared my story with the group. When speaking about how I thought of the story, I paused to ask, “How many of you are teachers?”

Almost every person raised a hand.

I shared my story about student teaching without missing a beat; little did they know my heart had missed a few. Because, you see…This was what I’d been waiting for.

During a recent online interview, I was asked: How do you hope this book affects its readers?

My response? I hope to evoke an emotional reaction in my readers. I’m also eager to hear from academics, specifically American literature experts who know The Catcher in the Rye as well as I do. I hope they would appreciate the many Catcher references, and I hope they would find my characters believable.

Most in the room were high school English teachers, who acknowledged my references to Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye with reaffirming nods and appreciative smiles. Immediately after my talk, one teacher wanted to know if I’d be willing to present to such-and-such group.

“Sure!”

“How about sich-and-such group?”

“I would love to!”

“What about sach-and-such?”

“Absolutely!”

“Are you booking into 2015 or would you be able to do something in September?”

“Um…I think I can squeeze something in in September!” *happy belly-flies*

Then I was asked (by more than one teacher) to inscribe books not to individuals, but to schools where they planned to donate my book.

My heart nearly sprouted wings.

sam cafe

Speaking with Sue Merrill, QHS English teacher who taught “The Catcher in the Rye” for over 25 years.

One of the attendees happened to be my high school superintendent, Mr. Parker, who had reread The Catcher in the Rye in preparation for reading Catcher’s Keeper. During the Q&A, his nostalgia for Holden and his siblings was evident. I was particularly keen to hear what he thought of my book.

He approached me after my talk, my book opened to the very last page. I knew before looking what he was going to ask me about: the unfavorable review I’d received on an earlier version of the book, which is now part of the Discussion Questions at the end.

“What is this person saying here?” he asked.

“Well, this reviewer apparently hated The Catcher in the Rye and also hated Catcher’s Keeper.”

Mr. Parker looked at me as if I were still an impressionable teenager under his academic care.

“Well, I loved them both!” he said. He shared with me he’d be seeing my old guidance counselor and couldn’t wait to share it with him—and promptly made my night.

Here is my birthday wish: I want to share my book with schools. I want to visit schools, present to teachers and students who are studying American Literature. This is what I plan to offer exclusive to schools:

  • Author visit and presentation, tailored for high-school students
  • Author responses to discussion questions – including an unpublished (controversial) question
  • Teacher lesson plan, assessment, and key – focusing on Catcher references and parallels
  • Teacher lesson plan: banned book debate/activity

What do you say, teacher friends? Let’s work together now to put something on the calendar for the 2014-2015 academic year!

I’ll be waiting eagerly to hear from you. But for now, I have some candles to blow out.

Post-Partum Book-Blues?

Growing up, I was a theater kid. All of us theater people understand the post-production blues that come after the final curtain call, after striking the set, after the running-on-fumes-but-cannot-miss cast party. The next morning, I’d awaken—as all my fellow thespians would—to an empty canvas of time. Our jam-packed schedules that had deprived us of sleep and nutritious meals and QT with loved ones for months were now suddenly…wide open. Texas countryside open. No more excuses for that putting off that dental cleaning. There would be no reason not to vacuum our cars’ crumb-laden interiors. All the reasons that made Cheetos a viable pairing with pizza lost their validity. So, after a good cry and a look at some photos or a glowing review, we’d all pull up our big-girl socks and get on with regular life. Ho hum.

No one told me this is how I’d feel after launching a book.

By now, you’ve read my previous blog, A Year in the Life of a Book-to-Be, which gave you a snapshot of the chaos of my life as I prepared to publish CATCHER’S KEEPER…and that was after writing the thing. It’s a strange life cycle: a book lives inside your head for years, you get it down and toil over every word, and then you have to push and insist and fight to get it out there. And then…

I wrote the first draft of CATCHER’S KEEPER in only three months. It sounds cliché, but the story had to get out. I drafted scenes in my mind at the playground only to run home and pound it out onto the computer during episodes of Phineas and Ferb. Many nights, I would go to bed, wait for everyone to fall asleep, and then sneak down to my computer and write until 2 or 3 a.m. Sometimes my husband would return from putting the boys to bed only to find me frantically typing a scene, having left dirty dinner dishes scattered about the kitchen. The story could not wait.

During my twenties when I flailed about trying to find myself (as many twenty-somethings do—ever see Girls on HBO?), my brother gave me a book about Graduate School entitled “Getting What You Came For,” which discusses how much commitment is required in obtaining a PhD. And by commitment, I don’t mean time, but passion. A thing that cannot be measured.

As my brother went through his doctorate program, I learned of a phenomenon more common than you’d expect summed up in a single foreboding acronym: ABD “All But Dissertation.” It takes years to earn a PhD—sometimes over a decade—but if you fail to complete the dissertation, the culmination of your research and expertise on your very specific field of study, you fail to get your PhD. If doctorate candidates aren’t borderline obsessed with the topic of their dissertations, their chances of finishing and therefore obtaining their PhDs are seriously compromised. You have to not only want it, but put almost everything else aside in order to obtain it.

If I may digress for one gloating moment: I’m happy to report that my brother, Jim Davies, has long finished his dissertation and obtained his PhD. (He’s now a cognitive scientist and award-winning associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa—as well as an accomplished author. You can pre-order his book RIVETED now!)

I’m not comparing my commitment to my novel to the dedication required to earn a PhD. But it’s true that if I weren’t borderline obsessed with my book, I may not have finished it. This book harnessed an immense amount of energy; just thinking about it gave me a rush of adrenaline. Had I not been borderline obsessed, I probably would’ve allowed those early rejections—and there were lots of them—to convince me it was worthless. I may not have bothered with the Amazon contest. I may not have self-published. And there would be one less book in the world.

But it is out in the world. (Hooray!) And, for a few days, I was relieved and thrilled about its release.

And then the blues kicked in. Which was so strange.

The thing is: It’s not over. It’s creating a whole new energy. People are reading it! Reviewing it! I’m working Twitter and Facebook like no tomorrow. Blog tours! Interviews with local newspapers! Online interview with NY Times bestselling author! Book signing and presentation at a local café! I already have five legit bookclub gigs in four different states (only one of which is a relative’s—ha!). There’s amazing stuff happening.

So why am I blue?

Recalling the life-cycles of my five babies (my five completed manuscripts), I realize I have a mini-blues episode each time I finish a first draft. I’m happiest when I’m actively writing—creating a story out of nothing. I look forward to the next scene with as much fervor as I used to anticipate 24 episodes. I play it out in my head, write it quickly, and read it the next day, reveling in its purity. Building from the scene before, laying a foundation for the next chapter, feeling a build lift me like a giant wave. This is the best way I can describe it. Although it may not sound familiar to other authors, this is my reality of writing.

Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Respectfully, Ms. Parker, I would have to disagree.

Revising is a chore. Launching is a roller-coaster. Promotion is stressful. Writing a story organically is the sweet spot, and I’ve realized that’s what’s been missing. Even when there’s so much left to do, I realized I needed to start a new project.
So I have.

What’s it about, you ask?

Oh, no. I’m way too superstitious to tell you that. You’ll just have to wait to read it.