Writing Your Own Story (Sort Of) by Greg Howard

POSTED ON JANUARY 8, 2019 on School Library Journal’s Teen Librarian Toolbox

Let me start by clearly stating that THE WHISPERS is first and foremost, a work of fiction. I’m reluctant to even call it semi-autobiographical. With that said, there’s no doubt that I left a lot of me on the page. Sort of.

When I first had the idea for this story, I thought a lot about my childhood—colorful family members, small towns in South Carolina where I grew up, the woods I explored with my buddies, those early school friends and bullies who leave a lifelong, indelible mark one’s psyche and memory. But I kept circling back a central missing puzzle piece of my youth—my mother.

 My mother was a conspicuous and fundamental figure in my childhood even though she was absent for most of it. Why she wasn’t around isn’t as important as the fact that she wasthere in a monumental way in the beginning—when your attachments and developmental influences take root and form who you are as a person. She was a local beauty queen beloved by everyone, a steadfast pillar of the church community, a faithful wife and nurturing mother revered by other wives and mothers for her beauty inside and out. She was practically an angelic presence temporarily on loan from God to the good citizens of Georgetown, South Carolina. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

As I grew older and wiser (sort of), the more I realized that my memories of my mother were a mix of the authentic and the imagined—some created from faded Polaroids, others from family lore, but only a scattering from actual events and real-life moments. That’s why I consider the mother in THE WHISPERS to be a tribute to my mother, but also a fully fictionalized character.

To my main character, Riley, his mother is virtually his entire world and when she goes missing, he’s not only completely lost without her, but obsessive about finding her and bringing her home. The world as Riley knows it simply doesn’t work without her. His dad grows isolated and distant, his brother retreats from the family, his grandparents are despondent, and as a mama’s boy who finds himself suddenly without a mama, Riley feels as alone and acutely isolated as I did at his age.

 Growing up a self-aware queer kid the rural deep South only added to my seclusion. It was time when you didn’t talk about such things, neither at home or at school, and certainly not at church. Preachers told me I was going to hell without even realizing (I hope) the oppressive guilt and shame they were imposing on an already sensitive, fragile kid. Authority figures seemed to know without question or a second thought that I was not normal. I never found myself in television, movies, or books, but only ever saw a romantic construct of love represented between a man and a woman. Even at that young age, I felt erased from society and reality. Compound that with the absence of my mother and you have one deeply confused, broken and lonely little boy.

 That was my story, but through writing THE WHISPERS, it became Riley’s.

 Sprinkling the seasoning of my life into THE WHISPERS was deeply satisfying, incredibly cathartic, and at times particularly painful. From Grandma’s fruit salad recipe, to the Pentecostal corn choir, to missing family photo albums and boyhood crushes, to camping trips in the woods, childhood trauma, a country market, nightmares so vivid I remember them to this day, and even to the greatest dog in the history of dogs, Tucker—I lent it all to Riley. And it was interesting to see with those same story ingredients borrowed from my life, how drastically his path diverged from my own.

I used to think of THE WHISPERS as my own story. But the longer I’m away from it, the more I consider it Riley’s story. Those are now his adventures, hopes, pains, dreams, struggles and triumphs. But I’m delighted that my real-life memories served Riley well and found a safe and evergreen place to land. Riley’s was a more fantastical journey than mine, but imagination was important to us both. Imagination was the vehicle of our escape to an alternate world. One full of hope. And in that small yet significant way, Riley and I share this story.

 When writing fiction, I don’t believe you can truly write your own story. At some point the characters hijack it and make it their own, and that’s okay. So, now I can say with definitive clarity that THE WHISPERS is my own story. Sort of.

Harvested From My Life — Greg Howard on His New Novel, “The Whispers”

POSTED ON JANUARY 11, 2019 on Parnassus Musing

Today’s post, contributed by Parnassus bookseller Katherine Klockenkemper, is an interview with Greg Howard, author of The Whispers.

Eleven-year-old Riley used to think the Whispers — magical wood creatures that grant your wishes if you leave them tributes — were a made-up part of the bedtime story his mother used to tell him. But then Riley’s mother went missing, and somehow Riley has become suspect number one in the police investigation. Bullied at school for his “condition” — having crushes on boys instead of girls — Riley is concerned that his difference may be the reason why his mother disappeared. Now he believes the Whispers may offer his only chance of finding her, so he sets out on a camping trip with his best friend, Gary, and his eighth-grade crush, Dylan, to find out the truth once and for all.

That’s what’s going on in The Whispers, Greg Howard’s new novel for young readers. Can you see how I was hooked?

Nashville-based Howard set his new book in the lush country of South Carolina, the perfect backdrop for this exploration of love, loss, and self-discovery. Much needed by today’s young readers, The Whispers handles issues of identity in a way I hadn’t seen before and found refreshing. A touch of magic and plenty of witty narration round out this winning novel, creating an unforgettable and wholly unique reading experience. Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, I can’t wait for you, your kids, and/or your students to experience it. It was my pleasure to interview Howard about his new book. Here’s our Q&A. – Katherine Klockenkemper

Katherine Klockenkemper: Congratulations on your debut middle grade novel! You’ve said that this book is heavily based on your childhood. Tell us about the process of sharing such a personal story — how much or little of yourself did you put on the page?

Greg Howard: Thank you, Katherine, and great question. Actually, I left quite a bit of myself on the page in The Whispers. I’m sure my family will think so anyway when they read it. I wanted to write about my experiences growing up as a gay kid in the rural deep South and also my relationship with my mother, but in a fictionalized way. So, I lent my main character Riley many of my own memories, experiences, family members, fears, joys, habits, quirks, etc. And I found releasing all those things to Riley came pretty easily. It was profoundly freeing, actually. One example of this is Riley’s dog, Tucker, who is based on my real-life dog, also named Tucker, and he was exactly as described in the book. But I had Tucker as an adult, not as a child. Riley’s grandparents are pretty much my grandparents; I wet the bed like a champ until the fifth grade or so; the trauma Riley experiences was based on my childhood trauma; and many stories from Riley’s life history and family lore — including the burial of can’t and if, the missing family photo albums, and my mother being a local beauty queen — were harvested from my life.

KK: The details and sense of place were so strong that at times I felt like I was watching a film. Is that the secret to pulling off magical realism in a way that resonates with young readers?

GH: I’ve been told I write cinematically, and I guess that’s because I’ve always been such a huge film buff. I want to see what I’m writing in my mind as I’m writing it. And also, probably because Pat Conroy is my favorite author. His writing is so cinematic and beautifully crafted, especially his descriptions of Southern settings. Conroy’s influence is ever-present in my writing process and I hope it always will be. Plus, having set the story in an area where I spent many years of my youth, when I was describing the setting, I was basically describing it from memory. And during those pre-teen years I think a sense of place gets deeply rooted in our psyche.

As far as incorporating magical realism, I think that comes from that strong sense of place coupled with a decidedly vivid imagination. And at that age, I sure had that in spades, as many kids do. I think it’s easier for kids to accept the possibility of magic, wonder, and fantasy in their material world. They’re more open to it.

KK: How did it feel to write in the voice of an 11-year-old after writing the teenagers in your last book, the young adult novel Social Intercourse? Which age did you find more challenging to write?

GH: It was a completely different experience, for sure. In Social Intercourse, the teen characters are highly self-aware, self-absorbed, and flawed. And though Riley has his own flaws in The Whispers (and I don’t mean the flaws he thinks he has, which he calls his “conditions”), he’s filled with an innocence and a beautiful sense of wonder, kindness, and hope, to which I really enjoyed surrendering myself. And without a doubt, I found the teens in Social Intercourse more challenging to write. But both were extremely satisfying voices to get lost in.

KK: I keep thinking about a character named Sister Grimes — she’s the mother of a bully at Riley’s school. Riley overhears her gossiping about him, suggesting that Riley’s homosexuality would “kill” his mother if discovered. Is this character based on a real person/people or experience from your childhood? (And what is it about hearing things we aren’t meant to hear that motivates us to extremes?)

GH: Ah, yes. Good old Sister Grimes. Well, she wasn’t based on a real person. However, the situation did happen in my childhood when I overheard a lady of the church say exactly that—that it would kill my mama if she knew I was “funny.” I didn’t know what “funny” really meant, but I’d heard it enough to have a pretty good idea. Of course, I wasn’t meant to hear the comment, but I did. And it haunted me for a long time, producing crushing guilt and shame.

When a child hears something like that, especially coming from an adult, it carries a tremendous amount of weight and can do a lot of damage. Adults are always right. That’s what I was always taught, anyway. So, I literally thought that my mama was in mortal danger just because I was who I was — something I knew I couldn’t change.

KK: When this book first came to my attention, I heard it compared to Bridge to Terabithia. Obviously, your book will be sitting on shelves alongside the classics of children’s literature. What do you hope it adds to those shelves? That is, what does your book offer readers that complements what’s already out there?

GH: Well that’s an incredibly humbling thought. But if it proves true, I think what The Whispers will add to those shelves is representation of a segment of children who don’t see themselves in middle grade books very often and who are sometimes erased all together. Some people have told me that I’m courageous for writing middle grade stories with queer main characters, but it doesn’t feel courageous at all. It just feels right. I have a responsibility to those marginalized and sometimes forgotten kids, to let them know that they’re not alone. That there’s nothing wrong with them. That they are seen, and most of all, that they matter. Because I was in their shoes for many years and I know what a dark and lonely space that can be in which to exist.

KK: I’m curious about what kind of reader you were as a kid. What were your favorite books growing up, and how did they shape you?

GH: Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught good reading habits at home, so the reading I did was in school, and the habits I learned from teachers. I was exceedingly fortunate to have wonderful English and Language Arts teachers all throughout school. As I kid loved the Encyclopedia Brown series, The Boxcar ChildrenCharlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and How to Eat Fried Worms. As you can see my tastes were very refined and varied.

KK: Last, our favorite question: What’s your favorite thing about bookstores?

GH: I love all the possibilities that exist inside a bookstore — the many different stories, worlds, and characters waiting to be explored and discovered. And that everyone there is on the same mission — to find that one, or two, or 10 books that we decide to invest a little bit of ourselves in when the choices are as endless as the possibilities.

 

BLOOD DIVINE CHARACTER TEASER

Meet Rafe, a fierce Divinum warrior and special agent in the Jericho army who delights in killing Anakim Changelings. Roguishly handsome and built like a brick wall, Rafe is an impossible lothario, happily bedding both women or men, and dedicated to the Jericho cause of ridding the world of the Anakim plague. With a sly grin, a sharp tongue, and an even sharper blade, Rafe's cocky swagger gets him into as much trouble as the endless war with the Anakim.(Order on AMAZON: http://bit.ly/BloodDivine or ask for it at your local bookstore!)

(Dream Casting: Jason Momoa)

 

The reviews are coming in and....

Check out these initial reviews for BLOOD DIVINE! Available now on Amazon. (Print version available soon)

5 stars: "...dark, twisted, and a bit on the scary side...held me captured the complete way through." - Natosha, Gay Book Reviews  (see full review)

5 stars: "Underworld meets Gone With The Wind...kept me completely engrossed from start to finish. A real pro of a job."- Freya, Sinfully MM Book Reviews  (see full review)

5 stars: "I loved this book. I loved the characters, the locale, the backstory, the world building, the pretty much everything about it!" - Dan, Love Bytes Reviews  (see full review)

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BLOOD DIVINE AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER ON AMAZON

My debut novel, BLOOD DIVINE, is now available for 

pre-order on Amazon!  

Blurb:

Cooper Causey spent a lifetime eluding the demons of his youth and suppressing the destructive power inside him. But a disconcerting voicemail lures Cooper back home to the coast of South Carolina and to Warfield—the deserted plantation where his darkness first awakened.

While searching for his missing grandmother, Cooper uncovers the truth about his peculiar ancestry and becomes a pawn in an ancient war between two supernatural races. In order to protect the only man he’s ever loved, Cooper must embrace the dark power threatening to consume him and choose sides in a deadly war between the righteous and the fallen.

(Perfect for fans of Stephen King, Christopher Rice, and Charlaine Harris.)

Also available at Kobo and for immediate download at Wilde City Press.

 

PATH TO PUBLICATION UPDATE

BLOOD DIVINE WILL BE RELEASED AUGUST 24TH!

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Cooper Causey spent a lifetime eluding the demons of his youth and suppressing the destructive power inside him. But a disconcerting voicemail lures Cooper back home to the coast of South Carolina and to Warfield—the deserted plantation where his darkness first awakened. While searching for his missing grandmother, Cooper uncovers the truth about his ancestry and becomes a pawn in an ancient war between two supernatural races. In order to protect the only man he’s ever loved, Cooper must embrace the dark power threatening to consume him and choose sides in a deadly war between the righteous and the fallen.