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Author Chat with Chris Crutcher
Transcript of Live Chat
July 24th, 2002
Welcome to the second of our Author Chats. This afternoon, our special guest is Chris Crutcher, author of Stotan!, Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes, Ironman, Chinese Handcuffs, Whale Talk, and many more. Chris' characters are usually outsiders, or become involved with outsiders. Their problems make for a good read with lots of questions raised, but no easy answers. Chris, would you say that's a fair statement of your work?
Chris Crutcher: Yes, I'd say that's a fair statement. That exists in each and every book. Good to be here, and welcome all you writers of the Purple Stage.
Darlall: Chris, this is Darlall in Staten Island. Where did the story for Sarah Byrnes come from?
Chris Crutcher: The 'event' came from a real event in which a man burned his child in a drunken rage, and then handed her back to her mother and said, "There's your pretty little girl for you." The real people were very different from those in the story, and I did the 'what if' game to create characters who would help me tell the story the way I wanted to tell it.
Kevin: Hi, my name is Kevin. I'm from the Bronx, and I'm wondering how old are you?
Chris Crutcher: I was fifty-six on the seventeenth of this month (July).
Anne: I'm in Manhattan. How do you feel about some of your books, such as "Athletic Shorts," being challenged and/or banned in schools and communities?
Chris Crutcher: Actually, I feel two ways. On one hand, I'm proud that they bring out conversation and controversy, and that enough people read them to be offended. On the other hand, I'm always sad when people think the best thing to do with tough situations or bad language in books is to hide it and not talk about it. A thing talked about is in a much better place than a thing not talked about.
Maryanne: At what age did you start writing?
Chris Crutcher: I started writing on my thirty-fifth birthday. I had played around some before that, but I got serious on that day.
Nanychi: Was being an author your childhood dream?
Chris Crutcher: No! My childhood dream was to never read a book, much less write one.
Anne: How prevalent do you think racism is in high schools today?
Chris Crutcher: I think it's very prevalent, though not as much as when I was a teenager. I think we don't do anywhere near enough to address it, though some schools are making big jumps in that area.
Kevin: Are you enjoying yourself as an author?
Chris Crutcher: I'm having a ball. I get to write when I want, visit all kinds of neat places, and dress how I want.
Wonder Woman: My name is Wonder Woman from the Bronx. How do you come up with your characters?
Chris Crutcher: I'm ALWAYS on the lookout for characters. I see them in my office. I remember them from high school. I remember them from schools where I've taught. Any human that crosses my path can plant a seed.
Maryanne: How did you come up with these books?
Chris Crutcher: Each one is different, but each one comes from some real place--some event or some character tickles my imagination--and I start asking what if, what if, what if? And the answers to that question make the story happen.
Nanychi: How has writing books affected your life?
Chris Crutcher: Wow! It's connected me to people and places I couldn't imagine. It's given me a way to make a living expressing myself, which is wonderful! It's given me a way to talk about the things I'm passionate about, and have them heard in an entertaining way, at least some times. And it's given me access to a lot of humans--students, teachers, librarians, and readers in general.
Booker: Since most of your books feature male characters and 'male' issues, how do you try to involve female readers?
Chris Crutcher: You know, I never think about involving any readers when I'm writing a story. I just try to tell the best story I can. I'm lucky in that girls are more likely to connect to books with male protagonists than the other way around, but I also populate my books with girls I have respect for, and that seems to do the job.
Kevin: Do you need an internship before writing great stories?
Chris Crutcher: Nope. You don't need nothin'. You might have an internship, and that would help, but the fact is if you have the story and the tools to tell it, you can be anyone you want with any education you want.
Diana: I am in Staten Island. Is being an author hard work?
Chris Crutcher: Yes, it's very hard work. Every story is written five to eight times over before I ever send it in. I sit at the computer without an idea in my head more times than I can tell you. I worry that I don't have another story. I get lazy and don't want to write. But if you stay with it, pretty soon a story emerges.
Kristjan: Did you finish college?
Chris Crutcher: Yes, I graduated Magna Cum 'Lucky' from Eastern Washington State College in 1968 in Sociology and Psychology.
Catherine: I loved your book "Ironman." I found myself relating to Bo quite a bit, as well as to a lot of the other characters. Did you have a favorite character in "Ironman," and if so, which one?
Chris Crutcher: ONE of my favorite characters in "Ironman" was Mr. Nak. He had some of my own sensibilities, and gave me a character to tell them through. I also liked Hudgie and Bo's girlfriend, whose name is getting confused with TJ's in Whale Talk.
Fire Fairy: Why did you choose to write about mainly teenagers?
Chris Crutcher: I started with a story I thought was good, "Running Loose," and "Stotan!" followed naturally, and then it was kind of in my head. I didn't start out thinking that's all I was going to do. In fact, I wrote an adult novel called "The Deep End" in the early nineties. But I know a lot of teenagers, and I remember my teenage years well.
Ravioli Girl: How much time, on average, do you put into a single book?
Chris Crutcher: If I'm not working on more than one thing at a time, I give it about nine months from the time I start writing until I turn in the first draft. Then it takes a little time working with the editor, but by that time I can be started on something else.
Mai: Did you write any survival stories? Those are one of my favorites.
Chris Crutcher: Not survival stories in the adventure fashion. I promised Gary Paulson I'd stay out of his territory.
Swimmer: I like how you show how getting involved with sports changes your life. Do you think you'll write about a girl athlete in the future?
Chris Crutcher: Yes, I do. I'm working on some short stories right now that have girl protagonists, and some of my secondary characters have been girl jocks. So I think there's one coming.
Salimatud: How did you become an author?
Chris Crutcher: To tell the truth, I just wrote a book, sent it in to an agent (who was the agent of a friend), she said she'd like to represent it, she did, and Greenwillow Books published it.
Nanychi: When you were a child, did you want to have a different career?
Chris Crutcher: When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to be Davy Crockett. I had no idea what career I could have if I couldn't be a frontiersman.
Anne: I grew up in Moscow Idaho. I know that you live in Spokane, WA, but why do you set all your books in eastern WA & Northern ID? Why not somewhere else?
Chris Crutcher: Mostly because it's familiar. I grew up about two hundred miles south of Moscow, and the northwest is just familiar.
Alexis in the House: Hi. What types of things do you do to prepare for a book signing?
Chris Crutcher: Just make sure I have a pen with me. The bookstore does the rest. Sometimes, when I'm signing at schools, there is a presentation first, so I have to think of what to say, but I'm pretty familiar with the topic.
Fire Fairy: How do you get through to the kids you work with if they just want to be left alone?
Chris Crutcher: I leave them alone, but make sure I'm available when they want to talk, which means making sure they know I won't judge them or scold them, but rather listen and try to help problem solve.
Darlall: All your characters seem to be angry. Why?
Chris Crutcher: Probably because there is a lot in the world to be angry about, particularly when you don't understand what is happening to you, or you feel out of control. I work with a lot of angry people, and I grew up with a pretty good temper myself. It's familiar territory.
Kevin: Can you tell me how many great books you wrote?
Chris Crutcher: I consider all of them great, of course, because I wrote them. I've just finished my tenth
Kings Bridge: Where is your favorite place to write?
Chris Crutcher: I have a long L-shaped desk at one end of my living room where I write most of the time, but I do a lot of traveling, so I write on planes and at motels a lot.
Ravioli Girl: Do people ever recognize you in public? If so, how do you feel?
Chris Crutcher: They recognize me here in Spokane, sometimes, because my picture will be in the paper when a new book comes out, and I'm pretty visible as a child protection specialist. 'Once' in a while I'm recognized on the road, but not all that often. It makes me feel good, and it makes me feel self-conscious
Anne: How do you feel about your stories being turned into films?
Chris Crutcher: Usually, right when they're giving me the check, I feel really good. Then it depends on what kind of a job they do. I'm writing the screenplay for Sarah Byrnes. In fact, it's written. And if it makes it to the screen, I'll have a lot more invested, because I wrote it. Generally, it's a good feeling.
Maryanne: What was your job before you started writing books?
Chris Crutcher: I was a lifeguard, a teacher, and a therapist. I worked pouring concrete for a while. I also drove a mail and freight truck into the Idaho backcountry.
Sarah: What do you hope you're giving to young readers when they read your books?
Chris Crutcher: First, I hope I'm giving them a good story. Then, I hope I'm giving them something to talk and think about. Very often, a book is far better than it has a right to be because of what the reader brings to it. That's the part I like.
Anne: What do you do when you get a letter from a teen that talks about suicide or other destructive behavior?
Chris Crutcher: I talk to them about what I understand about that. I do my best to let them know there are a lot of people out there who have felt that way, and encourage them to go someplace safe to talk about it. I let them know the consequences (re: those left behind) and hope they do something.
Kristjan: What other things do you like to do?
Chris Crutcher: I travel, run, play basketball, swim, hang out with friends, and glorify in my girlfriend's kids' accomplishments.
Ravioli Girl: Of all your works, which one is your personal favorite, and why?
Chris Crutcher: I don't really have one. They all do what I wanted them to do. There are parts of each I like.
Booker: I'm in my mid-20s, and I recall that I had to read "Stotan!" in freshman English. If you were teaching English, which books would you select for the curriculum?
Chris Crutcher: I'd select all my books. Good way to make a living. I'd try to get as many different genres as I could, and really open it up to bring in the most interest.
Jack: Jack from Manhattan, here. What are your favorite books?
Chris Crutcher: "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut. "Color Purple" by Alice Walker. "The Prince of Tides" by Pat Conroy. "I Know This Much is True" by Wally Lamb. Those are some.
Anne: Do you have a writing routine?
Chris Crutcher: Not really. I still work with kids and families some of the time, so my schedule is different every day. I do try to write every day.
Darlall: What was the hardest book to write?
Chris Crutcher: Probably "Chinese Handcuffs" or "Whale Talk." "Chinese Handcuffs" because of the subject material, and "Whale Talk" because the first time I wrote it, it was about a school shooting. I had started the book before the rash of shootings, and sent it in just before Columbine. I couldn't bring out a book about a school shooting that close to the event, because everyone would think it was a rip-off, and it would never get a clean read. So I threw it away, rescued the characters, and told a different story.
Shoebox: Did you begin by writing children's books? Have you written for adults?
Chris Crutcher: I have written for adults and will again. I started with a story about a teenager When it was bought was the first time I even knew there was a genre called YA (Young Adult).
Maryanne: How do you come up with these titles?
Chris Crutcher: Sometimes the title will come before the story (who knows what THAT'S about). But usually I go through the manuscript looking for one--some word or phrase that best represents the story
Albert: What book do you think people like the most?
Chris Crutcher: About my books? I think they like the characters and the humor, and that I'm willing to write about almost any tough subject.
Nanychi: How many children and grandchildren do you have?
Chris Crutcher: No children. My girlfriend has two kids that I've been with since they were seven and eleven. They're twenty-nine and twenty-five now. So obviously, there are no grandchildren.
Corn: Do you start your short stories with a character, a plot, or both?
Chris Crutcher: Depends on the book. I can do it either way. It depends totally on what I'm thinking about when it's time to come up with another book. Character is easiest to start with. Plot comes behind that for me usually.
Catherine: In some of your books, you touch on the subject of homosexuality. What's your thoughts or outlook on the subject?
Chris Crutcher: I think there will be a time when we look back on these days in the same way we now look back on the fifties and sixties in terms of racial inequality. I can walk through a hundred high schools and never hear a racial epithet, yet I hear "faggot" in almost all of them. I think it is shameful that we're so narrow minded about homosexuality.
Ravioli Girl: Have you ever considered writing a sequel to one of your previously written books?
Chris Crutcher: Not really. I take care of that urge by writing short stories about some of those characters.
Birkis: Do you write more than one book at a time? Or do you focus on one book?
Chris Crutcher: Most of the time I write one at a time. When I was writing "The Deep End," the adult novel, I was also writing "Athletic Shorts." That worked pretty well.
Maryanne: Do you like sports?
Chris Crutcher: I love sports. I played them in high school, because the school was so small that everyone had to play, but I've stayed with sports all my life and I love most of them.
Nanychi: How many books do you wish to write?
Chris Crutcher: I'm not sure. If I keep going the way I am, probably about twenty.
Jane: Do you know how the book is going to end when you start it?
Chris Crutcher: Almost never. In fact, never.
KT: How do you think teenagers were affected by the events of September 11, 2001?
Chris Crutcher: In a lot of different ways. September 11, for teenagers these days, was the equivalent of the Kennedy assassination when I was in school. It changed the consciousness of the country. It changed the world that we were going out into.
Swimmer: Who is your favorite athlete?
Chris Crutcher: Me. My second favorite is Michael Jordan. I'm a sucker for that kind of focus and talent.
Richard: Do you have a brother or sister?
Chris Crutcher: I have one of each. A brother three years older who is an accountant, and a sister three years younger who works for a mortgage company
Dbehr: Are there any genres that you have not focused on in the past that you might tap into in the future?
Chris Crutcher: There is some mainstream adult stuff I haven't done yet--relationship stories--but I'm not a science fiction or fantasy person at all.
Lauren: If you could go back and change one thing about yourself as a teenager, what would it be? Why?
Chris Crutcher: Good question. I would give myself some muscles. I would also give myself a little more self-confidence I would study harder. I rebelled by not doing any hard work as a student, and I really cheated myself out of some basic knowledge. I look back and think how foolish that was.
Mia: Do you write everyday?
Chris Crutcher: Yes.
Ravioli Girl: Do you have a variety of vague ideas for books, or do you try to focus on one and think out all the angles?
Chris Crutcher: In the beginning, when I'm trying to decide what to write next, I have a lot of vague ideas--a LOT of them! But once I get going, then I'm looking at all sides of the one.
Albert: Of the countries you've visited, which did you like the most?
Chris Crutcher: I haven't visited too many. I loved Mexico, and I had a great time in Guam, which isn't a country, but seems like it because it's so far away.
Anne: Does the response your books get from teens ever surprise you?
Chris Crutcher: Yes, a lot of the time. That's one of the things that keep me writing. I'm amazed sometimes at what kids get from my stories. That usually humbles me.
Alexis in the House: Did your girlfriend's kids inspire you with things they did when they were young to help you come up with some ideas for you stories?
Chris Crutcher: Yes, they certainly did. And now they want royalties.
Tyler: What tools do you use to assist you in your writing?
Chris Crutcher: Obviously, the computer, and my imagination more than anything else. I don't research much, but that's because I write so much out of experience. So I guess you could say experience is one of the tools.
Potbelly: Do you spend a lot of time getting the 'just perfect' word to use in a situation?
Chris Crutcher: Not a lot of time, but some. I use 'any' word the first time, and then look for the perfect one during editing.
Ravioli Girl: How do you think your work compares with that of your fellow authors?
Chris Crutcher: I think it stands up pretty well. I only say that because of other people's responses. It's really hard to compare it personally, because it always seems like other authors' works are so much more inspired and magical than is mine.
Velvet: What advice would you give to young authors?
Chris Crutcher: Write every day, and pay very close attention to the people around you and their responses. Read a lot, especially in the area you like to write in. And don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it!
Kipling: Where did you get your sense of humor? Even though your characters are working through problems, they can make us laugh.
Chris Crutcher: I live off my sense of humor. I work in a world as a therapist where kids get hurt and injured all the time, and sometimes killed. Humor gets me through that. My sense of humor is the one thing that's never left me.
GBS: Do you have any memories that haunt you?
Chris Crutcher: Sure. I've certainly done hurtful things to people I've loved, and those memories haunt me. I once got the kids in my class to elect a really unpopular girl to be our 'Queen', and that hurt and embarrassed her. I stood by and watched a cat be killed, much like the one in "Chinese Handcuffs." I was little, but I thought I should do something about it, but was scared. Lots of things.
Disco Babe: Can guys and girls really be best friends like your characters are?
Chris Crutcher: I think they can, but they usually have to work through the sexual issues at the same time. I know a lot of guys and girls that are very good friends. One of my best friends, now, is an old girlfriend.
Lila: You are a strong advocate against censorship. What advice would you give to kids and teens who want to be advocates against censorship, too?
Chris Crutcher: Stand up and read what you want. Talk about what you read. Show adults how intelligent you really are instead of letting them think you don't have responses to tough subjects.
Cleo: Have you ever had a coach or a mentor as memorable as your characters?
Chris Crutcher: I had one, a child psychiatrist who was also a Buddhist Monk. He's probably the only one.
Wheedle: How did your family feel about your becoming an author? Did you find it difficult to have your books published?
Chris Crutcher: First, they thought someone else wrote my books; in the same way someone almost always wrote my book reports. But after that, they were proud, I think. My parents are gone now, but they got a kick out of it. My brother doesn't pay a whole lot of attention to it, but my sister is always on me about when does the next one come out.
Trunks: What do you think are the most important issues for teens today?
Chris Crutcher: Violence, drugs, decency toward each other, and preparation for an 'interesting' world.
NYPL: Thanks for a great chat! We are almost out of time. Do you have any parting words for us?
Chris Crutcher: Just that it's been a real honor to be here, and it proves there are a lot of intelligent people out there interested in adolescent lit. Thanks for having me.
NYPL: I want to thank you very much, Chris, for being with us today to answer so many questions. Please join us again in two weeks - August 7th - when will be chatting with Christopher Paul Curtis.