June 21, 2007

Summer Blog Blast Tour: Chris Crutcher

"We either believe in basic intellectual freedom or we don't. We either believe in our own abilities as adults to help our kids process tough information or we don't, and not many minds are going to change regurgitating those arguments." – Chris Crutcher,
in open letter on censorship, Dec. 20, 2005

No one who really knows YA lit doesn’t know his name, and most who hear his name have some kind of a reaction – either clear affection and respect or the most vituperative hatred.

Chris Crutcher – the man who inspires students to stand up for the right to read, who speaks to packed auditoriums wherever he travels, who is an advocate for abused children and speaks in support of young adult athletics -- is also the man whose books are banned or challenged at least five or six times a year.

Chris grew up with what can only be called "old-fashioned values" – hard work, hard play and a more ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ style of life than many teens have today. Living in such a small town, the mistakes he made were… noticeable, so Chris knows what it feels like to be known for your reputation – and to have people talk. As a boy, Chris remembers his father shaking his head at the blurring of church and state when they added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance back in 1954, and this may have been the beginnings of the strong opinions on religion in the public sector which reappear in some of his books. Coming to the Bay Area in the 70’s with degrees in psychology and sociology further fed his curious mind, and as Chris began teaching, he encountered the multicultural world that fueled his later stories.

In so many ways, the story of Chris Crutcher could be folksy and sweet, but somehow, some way, the buck-toothed kid with a coonskin hat from a tiny logging town in Idaho grew up and managed to be controversial. Really controversial.
He writes about race. Censorship. Child abuse. Abortion and teen sexuality. He writes about the harsh realities of the lives of some young adults, the unrealistic expectations and unattainable standards to which others are held, and he uses the language they might use – full-force and undiluted. He does not lie, nor indulge in the swaddling, cushioning myths about God and sex and success and failure and patriotism that many adults use to ‘protect’ the younger generation from reality. And left right and center, his books are banned.

"He does that on purpose," some people grumble. "Being controversial sells books," others assert. Maybe. But no writer of his caliber spends all his time thinking about anything but the way he’s going to tell a story. There are no easy endings to the books Crutcher writes. There is no ‘happily ever afters’ that promise rose-strewn highways ahead. But there is …survival. And in some small way, triumph. Crutcher leads readers to learn to relish that ‘I am not alone, and I will survive’ mentality. And that is no small thing.

Years ago I had the opportunity to hear Chris Crutcher speak at a conference in Los Angeles. I discovered his books just after college, and having been raised at times with some unspoken but rigid Christian ideas, what he said in his books just seemed so huge to me. I had so much I wanted to say to him, so much to express that I could say nothing at all. Too shy to actually approach him, I instead trailed him around the huge conference center, watching as he interacted with librarians, teachers, parents and star-struck amateur writers (Okay, yes. The LAPD might call that "stalking." Just hush-it and listen to the story, all right?!) I observed him as genuine, direct, funny, off-the-cuff casual and even cute. (You know you’re all trying to picture him in that Speedo.) It is a tremendous honor to have been given this interview. Chris Crutcher will talk to just about anybody with honesty and candor, and will even answer fan email in his spare time. FW is still honored to present this very complex, interesting author, Chris Crutcher.
FW: "Chris Crutchers are a dime a dozen," Billy says in The Sledding Hill, but we think maybe Mr. Crutcher is the only one who believes that! You have had an impact on a generation of readers and thinkers. Who inspires you to read and think?

If I have had that impact I feel truly blessed. Any good book inspires me. I've never picked up a Vonnegut book that I didn't come away full of wonder. Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I could go on all day.

FW: The Sledding Hill is mostly, if not entirely, free of profanity, unlike many of your other books. Is there a reason for this choice?

Yeah, I did that on purpose. Neither Billy or Eddie are particularly tough kids and neither has had a truly rough life leading up to the story, so there's not a need for the language, but the big reason I did it was to take away the B.S. excuse the censors often use for attacking books. They make a big deal about language, which by the way, never hurt anybody. I thought I'd draw them out and make them take on the issues.

FW: Your novels include a lot of very clear and unflinching contrasts between good parents and bad parents, especially dads. How has your career in Child Protection and as a child and family therapist influenced your writing over the years? What percentage of your time is still spent working in counseling?

It's true a lot of my parents, both "good" and "bad" are inspired by my years of work as a therapist in the world of abuse and neglect. All my writing has been influenced by my life; my experiences and things I've seen. I don't spend a lot of time counseling any more. I do some consulting, and I'm still the chairperson of the original Spokane Child Protection Team, but I travel so much that a client has to have a very flexible schedule to see me.I do still see a few, but I do it all pro-bono, partly because I feel hugely fortunate to be able to make a living writing and talking and partly because I'd never to be able to follow a client as closely as some need to be followed.


FW:. Recently, The Sledding Hill has been crafted to be put on as a stage play; Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Whale Talk, The Crazy Horse Electric Game and The Sledding Hill are being developed into film by Riverrock Entertainment. How do you feel about the adaptation of your novels to performance? Which of your books have you most wanted to see in film or presented on stage?

I'm pretty removed from any feelings about adaptations. I pretty much hang my hat on the book, and let the directors and writers of the other media hang theirs on what they do. I am involved with RiverRock, so I have quite a bit of say about any of my projects with them, and I've done some writing with them, but in the end I'm quite aware that a movie belongs to the director. I'm working with an amazing writer now who is working on Sarah Byrnes and I believe he's going to get it right. The head of RiverRock also focuses on getting the story from the book to the screen, so I feel pretty fortunate. I'd feel more fortunate if something actually got made. (And I'd get closer to a fortune.)


FW: Many of your books contain people who profess a Christian faith but are closed-minded, petty, and cruel. An example to the contrary is T.J. in Whale Talk, whose faith is quieter and more matter-of-fact. A third, entirely different character is Dillon Hemingway in Chinese Handcuffs, whose spirituality seems connected to testing his physical boundaries. Could you talk a bit about your portrayals of religion, Christianity, and faith/spirituality in general in your writing? Are you trying to convey any particular messages to young readers, Christian or otherwise?

Mostly I'm trying to portray the truth that says inflexibility is toxic. Belief in God isn't what makes the likes of Brittain in Sarah Byrnes such an unbecoming character. It's his black and white, right and wrong look at the world. We are a trial and error species; we learn by our mistakes. When we start calling those mistakes sins, we make ourselves sick. T.J, Ellerby, Dillon, have a different take on spirituality, as do a number of my adult characters. Those adult characters - Lemry, Mr. Nak, Max, to name a few - reflect my spiritual take on things. I think there is huge spirituality to be found in testing physical boundaries. I have come to many conclusions in a state of near exhaustion.


FW: Some of your books are set in small towns or otherwise insular environments, where seemingly outdated prejudices can still loom larger than life, such as the mixed-race issues and other forms of difference from the norm in Whale Talk. What led you to choose these types of settings to tell your stories? Were you influenced by any experiences in your own life?

I've been quite influenced by my own history. I grew up in a town of 943 people, so I know that isolated life. It has as many positive things to say for it as it does negative ones. But I live in Spokane, Washington now, and I travel all over the country, sometimes the world, and I can find those outdated prejudices almost anywhere. People are more careful of showing them, but if you hang around and pay attention, they are there. I think there has been a lot of progress in the area of race relations and bigotry, but we have a long way to go and we need to get with it. Bigotry is as toxic a thing as there is.


FW: In The Sledding Hill, Eddie’s friend Billy says, of Chris Crutcher, "He’s scared too. But he’s not scared to tell his stories. That’s probably the only place he’s not scared." How do you feel that you evolved past that point of fear in your writing? Especially in light of how vociferously people have reacted against what you have said? How do you avoid that fear in your writing?

That happened from the start; from the very first book. You're insulated writing a story. It's just you and the computer and you can be as brave as you want to be because it will be a while before anyone else sees it. And when you write there is nothing but the story. The story drives everything, so you have passed by all the fears by the time you sit down to tell it. Plus, those vociferous people don't scare me a bit, and they never did. They speak from ignorance. They know almost nothing about child development, and they make up things to be afraid of. If they weren't scared they wouldn't be so loud. I have seen some amazing atrocities and some amazing generosities in my life as a therapist and in my life as a regular ol' human, and I feel a need to portray those things as I see them. They are truths - truths from my perspective to be sure - but truths all the same. When I try to portray some bit of heroism I've witnessed, it's hugely important that I do it in spades. The fears Billy talks about are Chris Crutcher's fears of not being a good enough human being; fears of being too selfish or of not easing pain when I could; the same fears everyone has. I was born with survivor's guilt. I've often said that the only places I'm not afraid in the world are as a writer and as a therapist. There is no story I won't tell, and no place I won't go with a client, if that client is willing, because if they trust me, I owe them that.


FW: You contribute to the blog AS IF!, Young Adult Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom. What do you see as the role of AS IF! in the national discussion on intellectual freedom, especially with respect to what young adults are "allowed" to read? How do you feel that concerned parents can deal with their fears for what their children read while still allowing them the intellectual freedom to choose? Would you support content labels (such as music and music ratings) to alert readers to potentially objectionable content?

I don't support content labels because they're subjective. I love it when I see that something has "adult language." What the hell is adult language? Kids use that language as much as adults do. It's just language. It's expression. If something exists in the world, it deserves to be talked about. That isn't to say I don't think people can do that badly, but something talked about is far better than something not talked about. The monster out of the closet is a lot less scary than the one hidden in there. Parents have the right to censor things for their kids and I wouldn't change that. I would, however, encourage any parent I work with as a therapist to think at least twice before doing that. It's the fastest way in the world to show your kids what you are afraid of and to create that fear in them. And it's a great way to take yourself off the short list of people to turn to when a crisis comes.


FW: Being true to yourself seems to be part of the message of many of your books, which share the characteristics of strong main characters with a lot of potential who choose to seek their own paths rather than conform to what some of the adults around them expect—for instance, with respect to playing high school sports, or carrying on an established prejudice, or embracing a spiritual belief system. Do you see these as coming-of-age novels? What do you hope young readers will take away from reading your work

I see them as coming of age novels because that's what society calls them. Most of the people I've worked with who are having "mid-life crisis" say, "I'm acting just like a teenager. I don't understand it." I do. Most of us don't resolve a lot of the issues that come up in our teenage years and end up dealing with them later on. We see many of those issues as teenagers for the first time, but any thinking adult will tell you they pop back up again and again. So I guess I just see them as stories. They get marketed to people "coming of age," but the truth is, we're all coming of age. Developmental stages don't stop until we die. We all have one thing in common: we're as old as we've ever been. It's as true of a teenager as it is a seventy year old. We have our histories, which we know, and our futures which we don't. We're all have a lot more in common than we're sometimes willing to admit.

- Chris Crutcher

Did we already say we are honored? If not – Mr. Crutcher, we truly are. Thank-you.

We are also honored to have possession of Chris Crutcher's latest book, Deadline, helpfully facilitated by his awesome assistant, Kelly Milner Halls, a full-time freelance writer in her own right. Thanks, Kelly! Since Deadline emerges unto the reading public in the fall, you can look forward to our review at that time, but until then, Bookshelves O' Doom has, with dampened keyboard, given you just a taste. Don't miss the mini-movie book trailer here, where you can whet your curiosity bef0re it goes on sale. And you can also figure out many boxes of tissue you need to put on order... And hey, wanna do something neat? (Insert sinister chuckle here.) Drop by CafePress for ironic Crutcher-wear. It's what all the coon-capped kids are wearing.

Did you know that Chris Crutcher once upon a time wrote a novel for adults? Suspense readers might want to check out The Deep End. It looks seriously scary to me.

Chris Crutcher is one heck of an opinionated guy. CC sounds off occasionally, every once in awhile gets out to his MySpace page, and he’s not afraid to talk back to censors, or the passing politician, either.

More than an author, in his capacity as a family therapist, Chris Crutcher is a resource to parents. iParenting has an online Q&A in hyperspace where parents can leave him a question. Chris also has an in-print presence in Family Energy, and helpfully lends his thoughts to exploring his books in a classroom setting, complete with a teaching guide.


Anonymous said...

Awesome, TadMack. And I mean that in more the original sense, not so much the '80s sense. I mean I am full of awe. At Chris Crutcher as a writer and human being, and at you as an interviewer for putting this together and asking such insightful questions.

And thank you, thank you, thank you for not including any pics of Rod Steward.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Yes, I second that, including the part about Rod Stewart pictures. I thought I was going to have nightmares after that striped Speedo picture.

Kelly said...

You guys are probably too young to be nostalgic for those 60s Rod pictures. I am too (slightly), but my dad was a huge rock fan, so I have sort of a thing for that aesthetic :)

Anyways, as they say...great interview, Tanita.