Any reader who is also a writer understands that questions will rattle in your head as you wend your way through a work of fiction. Unlike regular readers, you can’t simply be subsumed by story, sinking into the world that the author has labored to create. Like a retired engineer you have to kick the tires, lift up the hood, puzzle through how this contraption was put together.
This is part two of a Q&A with J. Adams Oaks, the author of the hot new YA novel Why I Fight. The great thing about knowing writers, especially writers as talented as J. Adams Oaks, is that those questions need not merely echo around in my head. I can kick them over to Jeff and get some actual answers and insight into the process he went through in creating his amazing book. So let’s lift up the hood…
Your novel has one of the most distinct and unique narrators I can recall. As soon as I finished “Why I Fight” I went back and read your story “Ash Butterflies” in Hair Trigger 21. Two things struck me. First, it’s amazing how the promise of this novel is contained in that story: the voice, the characters, your rich attention to detail.
But Wyatt’s voice in the novel has also grown since that early story…his wide-eyed, childish innocence has been colored by an edge of street smarts. He’s developed quirks and narrative traits that bring him to life. What happened after the publication of that story? What elements led to the evolution of Wyatt’s narrative voice?
First, thanks for the kinds words. I do think that Wyatt Reaves was much more naive back then, because “Ash Butterflies” was his very first incarnation and it was really that scrawny scared 12 and 1/2 year old sitting in his parents house alone for days on end telling that initial story. It’s that voice, more than anything, that made me want to carry the story forward. I couldn’t get his voice out of my head and I couldn’t help but wonder who these people were around him.
So I listened. The thing is that his story moved forward and he grew, so his voice aged and honestly, innocence can last only so long and then it gets really annoying, you know like a character in a Disney cartoon. So once I realized where Wyatt was going, I had to go back and revise his understand of his situation and the story. My amazing mentor, advisor and friend, Randy Albers, Chair of the Fiction Department at Columbia College and I had long discussions as to how distant Wyatt was from the telling. Randy encouraged me to see it from a 40-year-old Wyatt’s eye, but I just couldn’t hear that person. I couldn’t even imagine him that far into the future, and honestly I didn’t know if he even made it that far. So we hear it from a nearly 18 year old, who thinks he understands the world a bit, but really is only starting to see it. That’s what makes me so excited for him, he’s moving toward a beginning.
The story “Ash Butterflies” has become the emotional climactic scene of “Why I Fight.” All of the core elements are there, though the version that appears in the novel is leaner and more headlong.
Okay, well, I always saw the short story as the beginning of the Wyatt’s adventure, because most of it is told fairly chronologically. But, as I started to work with my phenomenal editor Richard Jackson on the 2nd and 3rd drafts, the story really became this close-up, intimate telling with Wyatt next to you on a bus talking to you just inches away. And because Wyatt was talking to you, a stranger, my editor asked me, “Would you tell your most shameful secret to someone you’d just sat down next to?” And he was right, there was no way he’d admit to what he’d done; he’d have to really sink in and feel comfortable before he could admit the truth.
Did you do this much trimming throughout the book during the editorial process? Were there any moments that you hated to give up?
That novel was as big as 350 pages and as trim as 175. I wrote 5 complete new versions over the years. Each was this amazing learning experience that had a specific reason it needed to exist, so there was also expanding and removing and adding back in and shuffling of chapters and reshuffling and on and on. It was intense and insane, but I’m a much better writer for it.
I did hate giving one chapter that had Wyatt and Clark, his only friend, spending time together, but my editor said if it didn’t have a purpose other than them spending time together, it needed to go. I loved it. Sure, it did some stuff, but I couldn’t figure out why I needed it, so it’s gone (of course, nothing is truly gone with computer now, so I’ll tuck it away for another day…). But for the record, I L-O-V-E editing and trimming. I love to write a bunch of STUFF and then, like a puzzle, try to figure out how the words can be there best.
The novel has an urgent, headlong pace. It’s hard to put down. This is helped along by the structure, particularly the short chapters, averaging 5 pages. When in the process did you arrive at this structure? What were the advantages of breaking the story down in this fashion?
Honestly, it was done in the last draft of the book and it was after Richard Jackson and I had discussed how young adults would see the book. He mentioned shorter chapters are better for young readers to feel a sense of accomplishment as they turn the page.
I remembered back to my childhood and that feeling of reading before bed and thinking, “I’ll read through this chapter and then I’ll sleep.” Or I’d check to see how much further I had to go. But it also serves the purpose of keep that pace that Wyatt is keeping and keeping anecdotal as it would be in a longer conversation. Plus I think it’s good for my adult friends who read it on the L here in Chicago and can read a couple chapters on the way to work!
How did you arrive at the title?
Oh, the title… Hmmm… Okay, so the original title for years was “Shreds” which came from the image of Wyatt tearing up comic strips and burning them, but obviously referred to the larger shreds of Wyatt’s life. Once the book evolved into this intensely intimate first-person narrative, wise Mr. Jackson asked me a simple question that would stump me for A VERY LONG TIME. He asked me, “Don’t you think that Wyatt deserves to title his own life?”
Well, damn it. How could I say no to that. But what would you name your own life, you know? That’s not as easy as if sounds. And certainly not for a 17 year old. So, I brainstormed and brainstormed and emailed them to my editor. Often times, I’d come home from a night out drinking, and I’d sit down at my computer and make a list of 10 or 20 that I’d shoot off to Richard, he’d reply in the morning with the two or three he thought were okay, but not quite right, we were getting there, keep going, he’d tell me. And somehow, maybe with the bourbon helping the creative flow, WHY I FIGHT was in one of panoply of lists. FINALLY! It felt right. It sounded proper. I think Wyatt would like it, you know?
One of the many vivid, visceral scenes in the book has Wyatt killing and cleaning fish at Spade’s insistence. I can still recall a version of this scene that your read in class more than ten years ago. Was that always a part of this novel? If not, when did you realize that it was part of something bigger?
No, that was always part of the book. And yes it started in that class, me trying to understand Wyatt and Uncle Spade’s relationship. It always felt very defining for the two of them.
There are so many emotionally charged moments in the book, like Spade’s confrontation with Lynnesha, or when Wyatt grabs Clark by the throat. Was there any scene that was particularly challenging to write or especially draining for you as the writer?
Without giving away the scene with Lynnesha and Spade finally confronting each other, I’ll say that it was one of the most difficult, because as I got into it, I kept saying to myself, “I don’t want this to happen… Is this really happening? What’s going on?” and it had to happen. It was the story telling me what it needed. The violence was overwhelming to me.
So many other people are upset by the killing of fish and tadpoles, but man that confrontation gets me every time! Wyatt and Clark having it out, was actually taken out of the book and then added back into a much later draft. I relished writing it, not for the violence by any means, but for the moment Wyatt is really claiming how he feels and standing in it so fully. I love imagining him standing in the woods, clenching giant fists as the rain trails off them, his brow furrowed. That’s like a movie scene for me!
This is a road novel that carries Wyatt and Spade across the country. Did you hit the road while you were working on this book? How did you capture the sights and smells of the state fairs, the salvage yards and the seedy motels?
I didn’t do much road-tripping while writing the book, but I did take one specific vacation before my last semester of grad school; I had a week off, rented a car and drove only rural routes and back roads all the way to Boulder, Colorado and back. I journalled a lot along the way.
Most of the book was actually written while I lived in Denver. Two of my closest friends, Claire Fallon and Steve Kalinosky, were kind enough to let me live with them for free as long as I wrote every day, so I committed to 4 hours daily. And Colorado was so foreign to me as a midwesterner that it certainly helped me truly pay attention to The Road. I should also say that my parents are academics, so we all had summers off and our vacations were in the family station wagon seeing as much of the U.S. as possible. Thought I didn’t really appreciate that education until I was much older.
The whole novel is framed as Wyatt spilling his guts to a stranger on a bus, with the reader standing in for the stranger. How did this device come about? You can truly hear Wyatt’s voice in your head. Did this structure help to develop that voice?
After Richard Jackson decided to work with me on the book, he asked me a question that I’m sure you and I were asked frequently in classes at Columbia: “Who is Wyatt talking to?” I answered quite flippantly, trying to dismiss this extremely important question, I said, “He’s talking to a stranger on a bus.” Dick answered, “Well, if that’s so, you haven’t written that book.”
We talked about what that situation would really contain: only enough information during a bus ride, a public conversation, a censorship of language, etc. So I worked on an entire draft considering what Wyatt was saying to this “stranger.” Eventually, in later drafts that stranger became the reader. And in the second to last draft, Dick asked me read the entire book out loud to myself, and if I couldn’t say it then it wasn’t working, if it didn’t fit in my mouth then I had to consider whether it needed to stay. It was amazing to read the whole thing over a couple days. It made me hear those flowery sentences that were the author or the narrator over pouring Wyatt’s voice. It made that voice really come first.
The entire novel is linear except for the fire scene near the end…why did you decide to jump back in time right at that point of the story?
I think I accidentally answered this earlier. It felt like Wyatt just couldn’t admit to what he’d done until he felt comfortable with the listener, the stranger.
Nana, with all of her quirks and eccentricities, is one of the colorful characters that sparkles in this story. How did she come to play such an important role? And where did the crates of glass come from? How did you decide to give Wyatt his ever-present piece of “Nana glass” to hold on to?
Nana was one of the first characters developed in grad school after I’d written “Ash Butterflies.” I’m not sure what exercise we were doing in class, but she really came to life pushing that grandfather clock, surrounded by cats and crates. I wasn’t sure what was in the crates at first, but once I saw the glass, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why did she have it? What made her do it?
I sort of figured that something broke lose inside of her when she lost her husband and so she found this manic behavior to occupy her time. Wyatt’s Nana glass is up for your own interpretation, but I know that constantly trying to understand his family and that is just a little piece of it for him.
How have audiences been responding at readings? Are you still taking the book around on tour?
Ah, the “book tour.” I seriously thought that was a real thing. I mean, I’m sure that well-known authors with a serious track record or maybe authors with small presses might be taken to a few cities by their publishers, but at this point there is so little money in publishing that the houses are struggling to keep afloat which means authors are left to self-promote and that is like taking on a 4th job.
I’m trying to visit friends around the U.S. and use the visits as stops to do readings. I’m going to North Carolina, where my brother and his family live. I’ll read for a couple book clubs and maybe a bookstore. The readings themselves are a blast. I love talking to folks about the book and seeing people excited. I’m especially excited to get responses from young adults. I did a reading in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin month back and two young boys showed up, dropped of by their parents. They sat in the front row and wouldn’t look me in the eye they were so nervous, but as soon as I opened it up to questions they raised their hands and came up with some of the most astute observations I’ve gotten so far. They seemed to really “get” Wyatt. And that makes all the hard work worth it!
Wyatt Reaves takes the seat next to you, bloodied and soaking wet, and he is a big-fisted beast. Tell him to stretch out like an X across asphalt and you’ve got a parking space. But Wyatt’s been taking it lying down for too long, and he is NOT happy.
Since he turned twelve and a half, he’s been living with his uncle, a traveling salesman of mysterious agenda and questionable intent. Soon, Uncle Spade sees the potential in “kiddo” to earn cash. And that’s enough to keep the boy around for nearly six years.
But what life does Wyatt deserve? Alcohol? Drugs? Bare-fisted fights? Tattoos? No friends? No role models? Living in a car?
If you’re brave enough to stay and listen, you’ll hear an astounding story. It’s not a pretty road Wyatt has traveled, but growing up rarely is.
Praise for WHY I FIGHT
“A breathtaking debut with an unforgettable protagonist…His painful and poignant story is a wonderful combination of the unlettered and the eloquent.” –Booklist (starred review)
“For male reluctant readers.” –Kirkus Reviews