Patrick Jones is the author of Cheated, Chasing Tail Lights, Things Change, Nailed, and his newest book, THE TEAR COLLECTOR. He is visiting us to day with a wonderful interview.
Please be aware that some of the answers may not hold appropriate things for younger or easily offended audiences.
You say that music helps to inspire you. What kind of music? How does it inspire you?
Like a movie, each of my books has a soundtrack. For my first three novels, I even put play-lists on my website of the songs I was listening to as I was writing the books. The music matches the theme of the book or captures the essence of the character. For example, in Stolen Car, I used Tom Petty’s music. Each character has almost a theme song. The main character Danielle was “American Girl” while the best friend with the secret past was “Refugee.” It is not that I would expect teens to listen to these songs, but I think they can relate to how a song can capture emotion. Just look at myspace or facebook; many are filled with inspirational music and quotes from lyrics. Things Change, my first book, is about a working class kid, so Bruce Springsteen fit that bill, while Nailed is about an outcast kid, so REM was perfect. The early draft of that book actually had each chapter title being an REM song. Chasing Tail Lights was inspired in part by the song “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman (thus, the positive adult in the book is Ms Chapman). For Tear Collector, I used Van Morrison because his songs like “Into the Mystic” fit the mood of this book perfectly. Also, Morrison’s romantic songs, such as “Someone like You” or “Have I told you lately” really helped when I was writing the Scott / Cassandra falling in love scenes.
You were a theatre kid in high school, which, as one myself, I must say is rockin' awesome. Did your experience in the theatrical world influence your writing in anyway? If so, how?
Not so much in Tear Collector, but that experience is the backdrop of Nailed. The mentor teacher character is called Mr. Douglas; my theater teacher was Douglas Dixon. Some of the plays mentioned were ones I did in high school and the best friend Alex was based on a guy from theater. While I have a huge treasure trove of funny high school theater stories, somehow translating them to print never works out. The other influence would be that most of my characters are underdogs in some ways. In my school back in Flint in 1979 – and I think this might still be true – many of the theaters kids were fringe kids who didn’t “fit in” with the rest of the school. Most of my teen characters have some of that fringe element to them, although none more so that Bret in Nailed. He’s a nail who sticks out in a high school full of hammers.
How has writing about other characters taught you about yourself? About people in general?
Wow. What a great huge question. There’s a line in Tear Collector that sums up what I’ve learned nicely: “we all have good intentions, but all with strings attached.” That is, I think most people in the world want to do good, but only if they get something out of it. That’s not seeing the glass half-full or half-empty; instead, it’s a glass you can’t see into. Our acts might be obvious, but often are agendas are hidden. One thing most of my main characters have in common, and this is very true for Cassandra in Tear Collector, is they are struggling with identity, between who they are (flawed) and who they want to be (perfect). That’s the struggle of every person, thus the struggle of every character. The book my editor has now (Clicked) is about that theme. There’s a line where the main characters says the difference between your dreams and your daily life is a canyon of despair. My characters live in that canyon.
Is there a most important message that you want to convey to your readers in your books? If so, what is it?
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes aka Mr. Happy wrote that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” I’d say my “message’ is that life is very hard, very complicated, but the teen years are short, you’ll get through them. That is a huge idea. A lot of people fuck up the rest of their lives because of decisions they make as teens. It is only six years! You will get through this!! But instead, people lose perspective and give their lives over to substances, to crime, to early parenthood, and thus, they’ve made a hard life even harder. In Stolen Car, there’s the analogy to life like being a game of Uno. The goal is to get rid of all your cards – that is all the shit that weighs you down. But some people, like Ashley in that book, got a handful of cards through not fault of her own, while Danielle makes bad decisions that keep bringing cards into her hand.
How do you come up with the names for your characters/ places/ things?
While I gave in with Things Change and set it in Pontiac, Michigan, all my books are set in or near my hometown of Flint, Michigan. The high schools are real schools, and most of the places are real names. I have a folder of pictures on my myspace of places in Flint that show up in my books. Character names are normally based on people I knew in high school, associations that names have with me (like Bret and Sean in Nailed which speaks to my pro wrestling obsession), or character names with symbolic significance. This is never more true than in Tear Collector which uses names from mythology (Cassandra), The Bible (Veronica and Simon), and names that mean something, like Cassandra’s best friend who she uses for juice / tears is named Berry.
What is your writing process?
It varies with each book. I wrote the first draft to my first novel Things Change in 1987 and got it published in 2004, while Stolen Car I wrote in spring 2007 and was out by fall 2008. Tear Collector I wrote – no lie – in three hours. What I mean is that in three hours, as I drove from Fort Wayne IN to Flint MI on 15 March 2008, I saw the book in my head. I imagined the story, developed the main characters, thought of key scenes, and explored the “mythology.” I quickly unrolled that movie from my mind into an outline, then just started filling it the “tell” with show. By Memorial Day, I had a good rough draft. I then sent that out to a couple of author friends to read, while at the same time, asking teens I’d met doing school visits to read it. That is the key part of my process that I think differs from most YA writers: I invite teens to read, comment, and thus shape my work before my editor gets it. After I took all that teen feedback, I sent it to my editor. She sent back her comments, mainly to clarify the mythology and bump up the romance between Cassandra and Scott, and I did one, maybe two big revisions. The book I just wrote Clicked was very different. I’d had the idea, the title, and some key scenes for maybe two years, but couldn’t write it. I’d start, hate it, start over, hate it more, etc. Then in mid-May 2009, something “clicked” and I went from 0 to 55,000 words in ten days. My editor has it now, and it may or may not be my next book. I also wrote the Tear Collector sequel in a similar way with a big burst of inspiration, a detailed outline, and then many words over a short period.
Outside of the literature world, what do you do?
I still have a day job, like many of my YA author friends. Because I’m with a smaller publisher, because I write for older teens, because I write honestly about sex, and maybe because I write about kids in Flint who live in trailer parks rather than gossiping girls who live in NYC near Central Park, I’m not making enough $$$ to quit that day job. I work as an outreach librarian: in the mornings, I’ll visit a juvenile correctional facility and work with young men who have never read a book in their life, and then in the afternoon, I’ll talk on the phone with homebound seniors who have read most of their eighty plus years. I travel a lot to do school visits, but used to travel more to train other librarians that allowed me to visit all 50 states, as well as Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Singapore. I hang out with my partner Erica and our dogs (Bella and Fargo), ride my bike too little and TV watch too much (Damn you Jon Stewart! Blast foul woman Lois!). I also have serious facebook / myspace issues.
What things could you not survive life without?
Just about everything I named above, plus the Wrestling Observer newsletter.
What do you feel is most unique about your writing?
One blog “review” of Tear Collector was “I stopped reading, I don’t’ like this girl.” Hmm, a creature that lives off the suffering of others, you’d think she’d be likable how? I think what I’m doing is unique – and mind you, I don’t read anywhere as much YA fiction as I used to – is three fold. First, most of the characters in my books are working class kids in the Midwest coming from busted up families in part destroyed by bad choices and a runaway American dream. I don’t think there are lot of teens like Paul in Things Change, Christy in Chasing Tail Lights, and Danielle from Stolen Car in other YA fiction. One person told me they didn’t like Cheated because they didn’t like the main character Mick. Why? “Well, he drinks, looks at porn, lies to him Mom, gets angry at his Dad, smokes, curses, and lusts after girls”. Well, there’s a name for that behavior: being a 15-year-old boy! Second, every book contains sex scenes. Sex is a HUGE force in the lives of teens, yet you rarely see it in teen novels unless it is what the book is about, but that’s not the case in my stuff. My kids have sex lives, but again, it’s not glamorous (back seat blowjobs) or, for some of my critics, not condemned. While I scaled it back in Tear Collector, it is there because Cassandra manipulates boys through her sexuality. Finally, I’m unique, as I mentioned, in how I use teens to shape my work before my editor sees it.
What is your favorite quote from your newest book, The Tear Collector? (No spoilers please!)
This is the last part of the first chapter. If you know the premise of the book, then there’s no spoiler here, just a punch line ala R.L. Stine. Cassandra is sitting in the car with her best friend Robyn Berry who is crying because she’s just broken up with boyfriend.
"I don’t respond, instead I let more drops soak into my shoulder and I feel a rush from the energy in the tears, probably like an addict feels getting his fix from his drug of choice.
When I’m so full that I’m almost disorientated, I take a white linen monogrammed handkerchief from my back pocket. I gently transfer the tears from her face to this old-fashioned yet invaluable family heirloom. I pull her close, so she can’t see the smile forming on my face as a waterfall of tears continues to cascade from her eyes. Robyn needs to cry, but what she doesn’t know – and nobody outside of my family could imagine – is that I need her to cry even more. Just like a vampire needs to suck blood to live, I need these human tears in order to survive."