Q & A with Martin Wilson
How did you come up with the story?
I first wrote Chapter 1 of WHAT THEY ALWAYS TELL US as a short story many years ago. Ideas and where they come from are often hard to pinpoint, but for this story I started with a character (Alex) who does something drastic to himself and how, over a quiet fall weekend while his parents are away, he is offered a degree of comfort by a young neighbor (Henry). After various drafts, I put the story away for a while. I eventually returned to it, but didn't really change much about it. It was eventually published in Rush Hour.
After it was published, and even before that, I kept thinking about Alex and Henry. And I also wondered about Alex's brother James. He's off stage for the entire story, and from Alex's point of view he comes across as a jerk. But I knew there had to be another side to James-there's always another side to every story. I wanted to know what made him act the way he did? How do you deal with the fact that your little brother maybe tried to kill himself? How do you deal with having such a social pariah as a brother? So I started writing Chapter 2 from James's point of view and, even though he can be a little prickly, I really liked him and wanted to get to know him more. Then I wanted to see what would happen to Alex after his weekend with Henry. So I wrote Chapter 3 from Alex's point of view. The novel-and its structure-developed from there. I must say, once I got going it was fun alternating between Alex's and James's points of view.
Is the story autobiographical? Do any of the elements come from your personal life?
This is a question every novelist gets asked, and I think everyone must have a different answer. I read an interview once where a writer responded to this question by saying, essentially, that the emotions and feelings are autobiographical, but the events are fictional, made up. And I would say that is, for the most part, true of WHAT THEY ALWAYS TELL US.
When I started thinking about James, and about his and Alex's relationship, I thought of my relationship with my own brother. Now, I'm not Alex and nor is my brother James, but the dynamic between the two very much ties in with our relationship during our teenage years. We're very close now, but as teenagers, though close, we still had our moments of conflict and estrangement. We were very different, just like Alex and James are. So, the most autobiographical part of the novel has to be the emotional relationship between Alex and James.
People who know me will recognize other flashes and scraps of autobiography. It's hard, even if you write a fantasy novel, to leave yourself and your life out of your fiction. I did also choose to set the novel in my actual hometown, Tuscaloosa. I figured even if I invented a small city in Alabama, everyone would assume it was Tuscaloosa, so I just didn't bother to give it a fictional name. Some of the places mentioned are based on real spots. For example, the high school. I did envision Central High when I was writing this. (The actual school I attended has since been torn down and a new one is in its place.) The golf course where Alex jogs is based on the one near the house I lived in during high school, but the house itself is invented. That is, I did NOT mentally put Alex and James in the same house where I lived.
But despite these scraps of real life and autobiography, I wrote a novel, not a memoir. Even though my teenage years were somewhat traumatic (is everyone's?), nothing really dramatic happened to me. All of the drama has to be invented. And that's the fun part. The life Alex and James have is way more interesting than anything that ever happened to me.
Which brother do you relate to more?
I relate to parts of both of them. If I had to lean further in one direction, I'd say Alex, because I for sure felt like an oddball and an outcast during high school. I was quiet and reserved. I had few friends. I'd spend Friday nights at home, watching a video with Mom and Dad. I definitely came out of my shell after high school, which is what I imagine will happen to Alex, too. But I also related to James in that I was restless about living in such a small city, eager for an escape, to see what else was out there in the great big world. Also, James is jaded, and he doesn't have much patience for people and their nonsense, and I can relate to that, especially as I grow older.
How did you come up with Henry's storyline? What made you want to include him?
Well, when this was just a short story, Henry served as the unexpected person to offer some sort of solace to Alex. As I developed the novel, I figured that he could also bring the brothers together. I didn't realize his storyline would prove to be such a mystery, but I'm glad that this subplot kept him involved with Alex and James. Somehow, I hope, it all ties together in the end, but not too neatly.
Henry is also the character who can ground both of the brothers, to take them out of their self-absorption so that they can see that other people have problems, too, problems that are worse than their own. Also, my editor and many others who read the early chapters loved Henry, so I basically had to keep him around.
When is the story set?
I'd say the story probably takes place in the late 1980s to early 1990s. I didn't have an exact year in mind when I wrote it, but clearly everything predates email and cell phones. Still, it's not a "period piece." I don't really reference anything topical, like who the president was or what songs and bands were popular. Besides the lack of up-to-date technology, I like to think that this story could take place at any time within the past thirty years or so.
Why did you make this choice?
It was a deliberate decision to set the story before cell phones and the Internet, mainly because it was easier for me to reflect back on my adolescence, which didn't involve any of those technologies. Plus, cell phones and emails and so on would certainly change the dynamics of certain situations. Kids today are so plugged into everything, and are always available by cell phone or texting or instant messaging. They're posting every detail about their lives online. I guess in setting WHAT THEY ALWAYS TELL US before all that I wanted to retain a little bit of that innocence of a bygone area.
How long have you been writing?
I've been writing since college. I wrote here and there before-short plays, sketches-but nothing substantial. I was great at starting things, but I never seemed to finish anything. It wasn't until I took some creative writing classes in college that I started to consistently write fiction. One of my teachers, the novelist A. Manette Ansay, was the one who really made me believe that I could one day be an actual published author.
Did you always see yourself writing for teens?
No, not at first. Because back then I didn't realize how wonderfully diverse the world of YA literature is. In my own stories, I would often write about kids and teenagers, but I never figured these stories were appropriate for a young audience. This was mainly because it had been a long time since I'd read YA and I guess. Sure, there are plenty of G-rated novels out there, but I also realized that YA books were getting a lot edgier, even beyond the already very mature novels of Judy Blume and Robert Cormier.
When I met my eventual agent, who only represents children's authors, I showed him some short stories of mine featuring teenage characters. He really liked them and said, much to my surprise, that they were perfect for YA readers. So he encouraged me to write a novel, and that is what I did.
I found it very liberating. I'm not a flashy writer, but for years I tried to be, so I could compete with all the flashy, young, "hot" novelists of the moment. That wasn't me, and my writing at the time reflected that. So, when I started WHAT THEY ALWAYS TELL US, I just focused on writing clean prose, creating compelling characters, and telling a good story.
In the end, I'm thrilled to be writing for younger readers, though I think-and hope-people of any age can find something to enjoy and connect with in my work.
If there were one thing that you would want readers to take away from this book, what would it be?
Wow, that's a hard question. I think people read books for so many different reasons, so everyone will probably take away something different. Far be it from me to dictate what people should take away. And I don't write to convey messages or morals. But, that said, I would hope people take away what I myself take away from books that I love: The satisfaction of having been entertained, but also the experience of having encountered characters who somehow-even slightly-shed light on and teach me something about the world we live in. I'm not sure if that makes sense!
I'd also hope that certain young readers who feel invisible and lonely come away from the book feeling a little less invisible and alone. I'd want them to realize that their stories and their voices matter and can be told and heard.
What does it feel like to have your debut book hitting shelves?
It feels awesome! Really, each stage has been so exciting to me. When I sold the book, I was over the moon. When I finished it, I felt amazing. When I held the galley for the first time, I was flabbergasted. To actually hold the finished, final hardcover in my hand will be a dream come true. I've been writing for years, and it never came easy. But it feels like my hard work has finally paid off. To be able to write and publish books for young people, I feel like one of the luckiest guys in the planet.