Armstrong & Charlie
is one of those distinctly American books that speaks to us of who we are. It warns us of those forces that divide us, and celebrates the strength of those who can overcome them. The novel is an exultation of hope--and a dang good story to boot."
--Gary D. Schmidt, Newbery-honor author of The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now
ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE
Q & A
What made you decide to write about your experience from elementary school? How much of the novel is fact vs. fiction?
Armstrong & Charlie is, maybe, 15% real and 85% fiction. But in that 15% is the spirit of a boy who captured my heart with his outrageous humor and unbound energy, and who made me think. That boy lived on in my memory long after we were schoolyard friends. Years later I moved back to Laurel Canyon. I would walk my kids to the same school where I had gone as a boy. Those walks stirred up stories, awakened characters, and a book was born.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing ARMSTRONG AND CHARLIE?
I had heard fiction writers say that some books write themselves. How's that even possible, I wondered. It sounded like a kid's fantasy about a magic pen. But at one point while I was writing the book, my characters took over. They literally woke me up at night--often with something that made me laugh--and I had to get their voices out of my head. I'd tap the voice recorder on my phone and let my characters do their own talking. The next morning I would copy down what they said as if hearing it for the first time. I must have a dozen of these recordings in my midnight voice thick with sleep. There’s even a big plot point that never would have happened if Charlie hadn't woken me up to announce his plans. I learned that you don't need a magic pen for your stories to write themselves. You just need to get out of the way (and keep a recording device by your bed.)
What was the hardest part about writing ARMSTRONG AND CHARLIE?
Rewriting it, for sure. At some point you have to give your book to readers for "notes." The notes sound great when you hear them, but then you have to work them into your previous draft. Your characters might not agree with the notes, even if they're for their own good. You might not agree with them, either. When that happens, you have to listen hard for the truth. Sometimes it's your own gut feeling that's right. Sometimes it's your agent's wisdom, your mom's perspective, your editor's experience, your wife's story sense, or your brother's insight. In the end, though, you're the writer. You have to figure out what's right.
Did you draw inspiration from your time as a teacher to tell your story?
I would flip that around and say I draw inspiration from my story to be a better teacher. One thing I learned from my characters is that kids their age want to feel at home away from home. Armstrong tells Charlie, "I'm away from home every day I ride the bus to your school." Even if you're not being bused to a distant neighborhood, going to school means going someplace other than home. As a teacher, I try to make that "field trip" safe, engaging and inclusive for all my students, especially the ones who travel extra far.
What message would you like readers to take away from your book?
"Message" is a tough word when it comes to writers and readers. I have to say I think that readers--especially young readers--are lots smarter than writers. There are more of them, for one thing, and their collective insight into a book is deeper, clearer, and more meaningful than mine could ever be. I will say what I hope: I hope that readers will like Armstrong and Charlie even when they do unlikable things. I hope that all the book's characters will feel as real to the reader as they feel to me. And I hope that, if they meet people in life who are in any way like the characters they've met in fiction, they won't judge them by the outside but will get to know them, and honor them, from the inside.