A Teacher of High School Language Arts Speaks with Chris Crutcher
An Interview by Debbie Erenberger
Editor's Note: The following interview was conducted June 23-June 26, 2000. Debbie Erenberger is a teacher of language arts at Prarie High School, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In 2000, Chris Crutcher was the recipient of the Margaret A. Early Award for his contributions to writing for teenagers. He has also received the ALAN Award for his contributions to young adult literature, and has spoken frequently at the annual ALAN Workshop.
Chris Crutcher's newest novel, Whale Talk, was released in April 2001; it is his seventh novel for adolescents, and his eighth book for teen readers. Each of Crutcher's novels, and the stories in his collection, use sports as a backdrop against which adolescents' lives are painted by an artist who knows his subjects from the inside.
Crutcher's books are published by HarperCollins Greenwillow:
Running Loose (1983)
The Crazy Horse Electric Game (1987)
Chinese Handcuffs (1989)
Athletic Shorts (1991) (a collection of short stories)
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (1993)
Whale Talk (2001)
Crutcher the Writer: Influences and Intentions
DE: Tell us about your life and origins as a writer.
CC: My early life had a lot to do with my origins as a writer, but I didn't get into doing any writing at all until I was about 35 years old. The early writing I did was mostly articles for my high school newspaper, where I was considered just mostly a smart aleck. If you read Sarah Byrnes, you get a little bit of an idea in their Crispy Pork Rinds publication of what I was doing when I was writing in high school. I was pretty anti-academic and I wasn't much of a student. I had a really short attention span and did not get a lot out of high school academically. I think college was a little the same way. I was a swimmer more than I was a student. But I grew up in a small town. I grew up paying real close attention to the people around and who my friends were and why they did what they did and why I did what I did. I looked at other people's parents and compared them to mine. That later turned into creating characters for stories.
And then when I was just out of college, I contacted a friend from college, Terry Davis, whose original work was a book called Vision Quest and who recently wrote one called If Rock and Roll Were a Machine. He was down at Stanford and I was working at an alternative school in Oakland, and we would meet once a week. Terry would bring a chapter and he would read it to me to get a feel for it. And I would tell him what I thought worked and what didn't work, and he would go away and come back and it would be edited. After we had done most of the book, it occurred to me he hadn't done anything I couldn't do. Nothing was impossible. If you were willing to stay with the story and if you had a good story and were willing to do the editing and pay real close attention to the characters, you could write a book. It wasn't some kind of magical worldly thing which, up until that point, I probably thought it was.
So I kind of waited around because I had a story to tell, and I was finishing up my work at the school. I'd been there about ten years and I wanted to move back to the northwest. I had this four and one-half month period where I was between occupations, so I sat down and just started writing Running Loose. It surprisingly seemed right. I liked the story, and I didn't have anything to lose other than the embarrassment of sending it in someplace and having somebody tell me I've had an ugly baby. So I went ahead and did it and got hooked up with Terry's agent, who had already marketed Vision Quest. She hooked me up with Susan Hershman at Greenwillow and within a week, I think, they bought it. I was pretty lucky.
When I finished writing Running Loose, I had written as many books as I had read: To Kill a Mockingbird was the one and only!
DE: In terms of style, who or what were the early influences on you as a writer?
CC: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that just hangs in my head and I go back and look at it once in a while just to kind of see how she wrote it. That's one. Any writer my age almost can't get away from being influenced by Kurt Vonnegut, partially because of his simple, clear way of stating things. To read Vonnegut is to learn how to use economy words. If you get a sentence down which seems Vonnegutlike, then you think you have the perfect sentence. So he was probably the biggest influence . . . and Tom Robbins, who is a wild man. I could never, never imitate his writing, but I did develop my own sense of metaphor reading Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Another Roadside Attraction . . . his old stuff. I don't write like him at all, but one of the things read-ing him did was say, "if you do it well, you can write anything you want to." I don't know if that is stylistic, but it certainly gave me a sense of freedom.
DE: A hallmark of your work is your choice of themes, such as sports, adolescents whose lives include crisis situations, friendship. [Can you] comment on these?
CC: I would never sit down and say, "I'm going to write a book and this is what the theme is going to be." I never consider that for a moment. But what happens is I sit down and I'll have a story to tell, and the story itself and the characters I choose to put into that story are what create the theme. A lot of times I have no idea where the story is going, and so probably that idea of theme-or the kind of budding theme-is actually helping me tell the story. I just haven't named it yet and I've left myself wide open in case I get brilliant along about chapter five.
I throw the sports thing in because I grew up in a town where you had to play sports. You played because they needed enough bodies, so you didn't have to be a great athlete. No matter if you were a talented athlete or not, you had that experience. So if I'm going to tell a story, and I'm going back into my 17-year-old sensibilities to do it, the athletics theme just pops up. It's always been in my life.
The other themes come with the story. My creative capability depends on that. It depends on my ability to be telling the story and all of a sudden something will pop up in front of me which just absolutely fits. And the minute that happens, it usually elevates the entire story.
DE: What changes through time do you see in your own work?
CC: I began working as a child abuse and family therapist just after I finished Running Loose, so the Nortie Wheeler stories and Stotan! were spurred by real stories and my imagination. And then you get to Crazy Horse and Chinese Handcuffs. It's almost an honor to be allowed in the way you're allowed when you are trying to help him or her find a way through it. If they get to the place where they trust you, you hear things you thought you'd never hear. In some cases I work with kids who have been abused, but I also work with abusers. And the problem is abusers have been abused and some of them are real . . . I mean, if you look at their acts, they look like real devils. But when you start messing around in their lives a little bit, you see they were once in this other place, and their acts are not the acts of devils, but that's their response to the world . . . You know how bad it can get and how good it can get. And so all of a sudden you see the relativity of it all, the relativity of heroism comes through. You'll see some bad dad . . . some guy who is working to be different and to break away from his old patterns. Sometimes he doesn't make it and sometimes he does, and usually he makes it just barely far enough. It's a tough, tough ride. But I recognize the heroism in that and then I try to get that down. So a simple love story like I might have told in Running Loose isn't anywhere that simple in Chinese Handcuffs. In Chinese Handcuffs it is a love story that cannot be.
One of the things that happened to me is I just get more understanding working with little kids. I remember I was at the mental health center one time and we were having an 18th birthday party for this kid who had been in our abuse project for about five years. I remember sitting in the back of the room kind of watching him open his presents. (If you are having your birthday party at the mental health center you're in pretty rough shape already.) But I was look at him and I thought, "Boy, this is the worst day of your life, because yesterday you were the victim and tomorrow you're the guy." And, you know, two years later I had his kids [in counseling]. It is absolutely perception. I mean, this guy was without tools.
DE: Has you work as a counselor helped you to be a better writer?
CC: I think if I hadn't done the other stuff I wouldn't have been a writer. I wouldn't have had any stories. My stories would have been too shallow.
DE: Another exemplary feature of your work is the ability to authenticate your characters, especially those who are your heroes. Is this a conscious effort on your part?
CC: It's conscious in the sense that I know I want a character to be three-dimensional. I want to look at this character from all points of view. I know I don't want to make them all good or all bad or all anything . . . the story itself often helps create the character. An incident will come up in a story, and I don't know exactly how my character will respond to it until I put the event in there and try it. Sometimes I blow it the first two or three times until I get the right response. But there's a certain part of it where the events of the story are what help create the character. And one of the things I always ask myself-and this part is very intentional- is "Could this be true?" If it couldn't be true then I better get out of there. And if it is highly unlikely, I am going to at least address it. But for the most part, I want this kind of range within which this character would respond based on what he knows, you know, how long he's been alive. The intentional part is I don't want to leave any pieces not thought of, even if I don't write them down. If I have this character in my head and I give him a history, . . . I want him to be consistent . . .
DE: How would you define "hero" as it relates to your characters?
CC: The standard line I use is, "A hero is a person who learns to stand up for him or herself." I truly believe that there is no act of heroism that doesn't include this.
DE: Would you discuss your reason behind casting males in the majority of the hero protagonist roles in your works, while putting females in supporting roles?
CC: Yeah, because I'm male. That's the only reason. It's because I have a better look and because I'm so sensitive about not being able to do justice to a character. I think I can do a female character. I'm a lot more comfortable with it now having written Sarah Byrnes and . . . the Jennifer Lawless character in Chinese Handcuffs. In this latest book, Whale Talk, I went even further toward boys because I was basically working on a different thing. I think I can do-and I will do-a good female character. But it's one of those things where I'm just hypersensitive about getting it right.
. . . And it is very important to me for the female characters to have a profound influence on the male characters. For example, Lemry in Sarah Byrnes, the Lisa in Crazy Horse Electric Game, those coaches, and then the girlfriends, you know, certainly in Ironman, Moby's girlfriend, and those kind of stories, and of course Sarah Byrnes herself. Nobody is tougher than Sarah Byrnes. This piece is important to me because I grew up in a family where women didn't have much voice. And because they didn't have much voice there's a real difference between what risks I'm willing to take in the world and the risks my sister's willing to take because of what we both grew up believing . . . So it's very important for me to get a balance between males and females. Some kid asked me the other day, "Boy, a lot of the women-or girls-in your books-they're so aggressive. How come you do that?" And I said, "Well, because I think everybody has the right and the obligation to stand up, and it's a lot easier for men to do that in this culture than it is for women." So it's important for me to get female characters into my stories.
DE: What can you tell me about the adult heroes in your stories?
CC: They're my chance to say what I have to say as an adult. There's a certain character who hangs kind of on an Eastern . . . philosophical edge in most books. It's Dakota in Running Loose. It's Max in Stotan! It's Sammy in The Crazy Horse Electric Game. It's the coach in Chinese Handcuffs . . . it's how I get an adult perspective injected into the story. I probably wouldn't be as successful if I tried to bring that perspective through a teenager.
Crutcher's Literature in the Classroom
DE: Give us your definition of young adult literature and comment on your criteria surrounding the issue of adult versus young adult literature.
CC: When I started writing stories I didn't even know they had such a characterization as young adult. I don't like the term anyway, because if you are a young adult, you have to be at least eighteen years old or you're not an adult. I figure it's one of those terms like "special ed.," -two days after somebody uses the term everybody knows what "special" means and it kind of ruins the word. And young adults don't think that we think they're young adults, so I usually call it "coming of age" or "adolescent" or whatever. But when I sat down to write the [first] story, I had no idea it even mattered . . . My criteria is if the protagonist is over twenty it's adult; if the protagonist is under twenty, it's young adult, and I don't do anything different in terms of story telling. However, I may have to edit. There may be some parameters I'm agreeable to. But the one thing that I won't ever do is candy-coat something because somebody thinks, "I don't want my kid to hear that." Or, somebody thinks if Chris Crutcher uses that word, then all kids in the world are going to rally and start screaming that word at the top of their lungs . . .
And, of course, young adult literature truly is the stepchild of real literature, and young adult writers are almost writers. That's the way we are categorized. Early on it bothered me . . . but as far as I'm concerned I'm going to tell the best story I can tell and if I'm telling it first person, it will be limited, because the kid's experiential basis is going to be smaller. Other than that I don't pay any attention to the label.
DE: As you know, high school teachers are faced with teaching a plethora of information in a short period of time. What is your view on time spent teaching the classics versus time spent teaching young adult literature?
CC: I think we spend way too much time on the classics because what we do when we teach the classics to kids without teaching them an equal amount of contemporary literature is we ruin literature for them. The only thing I can think of that would be worse than being Silas Marner is to have to read about him. The reason I didn't read when I was in school was because nobody would give me a story I cared about. I would have read if teachers had given me some stories I could care about and let me draw parallels between the classic stories.
. . . I think stories are . . . a great equalizer. If somebody sits down with a good story and the teacher talks about it and the kid talks about it, it levels the playing field. "What did you think about it?" "How did you like this character?" "What did you think when this adult character did this?" You know, all of a sudden my opinion is every bit as important as your opinion because it's about true appreciation. We don't do that.
If a Chris Crutcher book is used in a school, it's used someplace basically for people who don't want to read. I hear that all the time, and I love it . . . But the reality is I also hear back from people who love to read-those who are surprised that somebody got a hold of one of my books. I've heard kids in college say, "How come nobody told us these books were here?" Because you were going to college and they wanted you to read the classics. That's why.
DE: What are the most frequent questions you get from young readers?
CC: "Where do you get your ideas?" is far and away the most frequently asked question. What I always tell people is that I get my ideas the same place you get them. I get them from TV. I get them from people saying things to me. I get them from things I see. I get them from anything that moves me at all. Things that make me laugh, cry, mad. . . it's an idea. And when I'm in the business of telling a story, I'm just hypersensitive to it. I'm constantly looking. Almost everything I hear or see goes through this kind of filter . . . "Could I use that?"
The other one they ask is, "Did these things happen to you?" Any character who feels real to them . . . they want that character to be real.
DE: Which of your characters best reflects you as a young adult?
CC: Louie Banks. He was my first story, and I think when I look back on it, it took a tremendous amount of courage to even sit down and write a story . . . He may have been more courageous than I would have been and may have been a little more articulate, because I could edit him better than I could edit myself when I was making those smart remarks in the first place. And he lived in the town I grew up in. Trout, Idaho, is Cascade, Idaho, with a different name.
DE: In my "Values in Literature" class, we read a number of the stories from Athletic Shorts. A lot of the kids have never read an entire book and they tell me so. We talk about those short stories in great depth-we don't just read them and go on. We discuss all the "stuff" in them. After students become connected with the characters (this is very easy for them), they're eager to read one of your novels, which we do. Last year, we read Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. As an author, how do you feel about his "hook" approach?
CC: I love it because, for one thing, I was one of those kids. I read one book the whole time I was in high school and as you know, it was a mistake that I read it. But it was a hook. The flap hooked me, actually. In this particular case, the whole idea of a hook works well because it tells you a little bit about the characters. It gives the kids a running start going into the book . . . I think the only thing about literature that's worth anything is the business of connection and learning about what the world is like. What other reason is there to read? Stories are for hooking us up with each other. It's an art.
DE: In the past, students have questioned me as to your characters who are homosexual and situations which address homosexuality. I promised them I would ask you about this during our interview. Do you have any specific reasons for the topic of homosexuality being incorporated into your stories?
CC: One of the reasons I use homosexuality is that I have worked so long in the Bay area and I have a lot of gay friends. I came from a lumber town; it was easy for me to have the same kind of prejudices which go with growing up the way I did. And one of the things I became aware of was that I started believing we would some day look back at this time in terms of the gay population like we looked back on the early sixties and the fifties in terms of ethnic populations, and particularly Blacks. We were so shameful, and we still are, but to a lesser degree, in the way we just blatantly treated minorities . . .
I can walk through a high school and never hear the word "nigger" or "spic" or any other of a million racial epithets, but I can hear "faggot" anyplace, and it's school sanctioned. It doesn't get jumped on. Generally you get away with "faggot," which is exactly the same kind of word for that population. It's the same venom, and nothing is done about it. When I'm looking for the kind of out front bigotry, where it's just accepted, that's what I use. It's the easy one to get close to. If you're Black or Oriental, you've always been that. But during adolescence, you're just getting your sexual identity. You're trying to figure it out, so you're just totally vulnerable. Then you get Joe Jock in your face about it. The chances for depression, the chances for absolutely losing your self-esteem, are great. It's easy for story material.
DE: You recently finished Whale Talk.I can't wait to read it!
CC: I was a little nervous about this one because I had been with it so long. I wasn't sure whether or not it was as smooth and if it hung together the way my other stories did. I took some of the characters and pieces out of the old Columbine book. I was putting them in [Whale Talk] and I shouldn't have been doing it, so I didn't know. But it fell together! [Crutcher began a based on the story of the first kid in the United States to walk into his high school and shoot his classmates, but he permanently discarded the full manuscript following the Columbine High School tragedy. He has explained that he kept some of the parts and characters to use elsewhere.] My editor and I got on the phone and talked for maybe forty-five minutes. We corrected most things right there. By the next day it was edited [and as of April, 2001, it has been in print]. They moved quickly. I think they were in a hurry to let people know I'm not another dead white author!
Reference Citation: Erenberger, Debbie. (2001) "A Teacher of High School Language Arts Speaks with Chris Crutcher" The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 3, p. 5.