I'm excited to share Matt Blackstone's debut young adult novel, A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie, for this week's Spotlight Wednesday.
Rene, an obsessive-compulsive fourteen year old, smells his hands and wears a Batman cape when he’s nervous. If he picks up a face-down coin, moves a muscle when the time adds up to thirteen (7:42 is bad luck because 7 + 4 + 2 = 13), or washes his body parts in the wrong order, Rene or someone close to him will break a bone, contract a deadly virus, and/or die a slow and painful death like someone in a scary scene in scary movie. Rene’s new and only friend tutors him in the art of playing it cool, but that’s not as easy as Gio makes it sound.
A Scary Scene in a Scary Movie was released yesterday, July 5th, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), and I adored it. Matt was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Contemps -- I think you'll find his answers pretty awesome!
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Momentum is everything. Write every day. I find that if I take days off in the middle of a project, I lose the voices of my characters and am less motivated to push through.
But most importantly, momentum or no momentum, you need to push through your fears.
(My worst fear: A mountain of rejection letters piled so high on my desk that if I breath or cough or sigh with enough gusto the entire mountain will collapse on me like an avalanche and crush me and cover me in my own rejections and failures and nobody will hear me scream and I’ll die a slow and painful death, which newspapers will find fascinating and therefore report, on the front page in big bold lettering, “MAN DIES OF FAILURE; NOT HEART FAILURE, JUST FAILURE”—but since nobody reads newspapers anymore, nobody will hear about it until Comedy Central gets its hands on the story and Steven Colbert proclaims, with a wag of the finger, “Nation, I thought Bill O’Reilly was a loser, a real Loserasaurus [audience cheers]. . . I did, I really did, but then, Nation, [Colbert chuckles], but then I heard of Matt Blackstone,” as the audience, howling like hyenas, chants his name instead of mine: “Ste-ven. Ste-ven, Ste-ven . . .”)
Whatever your fear, push through—like I did as an eight year old to a bunch of autograph seekers in Disney World waiting on Roger Rabbit’s John Hancock. (Never thought you’d read those four words in a row, huh?) Anyway, after I elbowed my way to the front of the line, instead of signing “Roger Rabbit,” he wrote, “patience is a virtue.” Punk.
Anyway, the rejection fear is common when sending out a manuscript. It’s your blood and sweat and tears and time—all that time!—and if you’re lucky, you’ll finish a few drafts and become even closer. You’ll become friends. Not friends of friends or Facebook friends or John McCain’s “(my) friends,” but friends. Real friends. Friends as tight as family. Homies—yup, you and your manuscript become homies.
You know deep down, really deep down (if you dug long enough to reach China) that your homie is only a Microsoft Word file, a stack of paper filled with words, words that make a book—not even a book, almost a book, but it’s your baby, your friend, your homie and though you don’t have a history of ascribing love and friendship to inanimate objects, you can’t help but feel sad and scared and apologetic when you mail it out because you’re tossing your homie into the wild all by himself and suddenly you understand why in Cast Away Tom Hanks screamed “I’M SORRY WILSON! I’M SORRY! WILSON I’M SORRY!” when the current carried his volleyball away.
You take back all the times you’ve mocked that scene when punting a basketball out of your little brother’s reach—“I’M SORRY SPALDING, I’M SO SORRY”—because now your homie is alone and you’re alone and all you can do is wait. If you emailed your materials, your only option is to click “refresh.” You realize that refresh is a terrible word, a truly terrible word to describe what you’re going through because you feel a lot of things, but none of them are refreshment.
You hate yourself for throwing your characters into the wild. (Refresh.) You hate that they’re all alone and buried in a pile of slush. (Refresh.) You picture them slashed and bloody and shredded into a million little pieces. (Refresh.) You feel bad for James Frey, author of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, for getting spanked by Oprah on national television but you envy him now. (Refresh.) You hate the word “refresh” and hate that you’ve been a sucker for it all your life: soda, slurpies, Gatorade, frozen lemonade—all them tasty but none of them nearly as refreshing as a glass of water. (Refresh.)
But all you can do is wait.
All I could do was wait. I didn’t call my first manuscript “Wilson,” but it was my homie. You All in the Kool-Aid But You Don’t Know the Flavor was a memoir about my Teach for America experience, from the boot camp of summer Institute to the streets of West Baltimore; from political corruption ($50 million was stolen from the city budget) to crumbling schools (my principal at Frederick Douglass High School changed students’ grades to improve our graduation rate)—things got so crazy that HBO spent a year in our school filming Hard Times at Douglass High).
Yep, I was invested. But after months of submission I had nothing to show for it.
A year later, right before a family trip to Mexico, I decided to give it another shot. I typed A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE at the beach, on local sweaty buses to and from Chichen Itza, on the plane ride home, and then every morning and night until I finished. Four months later, thanks to the work of my new agent, I had a two-book deal.
So, push through. Even if Roger Rabbit doesn't appreciate it.
What would you like readers to take away from Rene's story?
Teachers often say that loud, disruptive students are thorns in their sides but most would admit that the truly dangerous ones—dangerous, at least, to themselves—are the quiet, aloof ones who fly under the radar because they nod politely at their teachers. They play the game well, well enough to get promoted, but they are anything but well.
A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE is the result of seeing a growing number of my students isolate themselves. Rene’s rituals and magical thinking exemplify what it means to be mentally ill, or at least socially inept, in a high school setting that demands academic prowess and social fluency. I wrote this book to offer hope to wild card teenagers (what teen isn’t a wild card these days?) or those who begrudge their parents (sometimes deservedly so), question conformity, and feel so desperate and alone that the only safe place is inside their heads. But what if even that place isn’t safe?
I wanted to show teens they’re not alone, like Rene. [Click here and “search inside” to read the first chapter.] This is also what I hope to accomplish with my Twitter contest: to show people they’re not alone.
Plus, I want to raise awareness. OCD and other anxiety disorders are quite common, but many schools are unable to handle a high case load. Last year, my school in the Bronx had over 1,000 students with 1 full-time psychologist. This year, with a building realignment, it wasn't much better: 886 students, 1 psychologist. I wish this were the exception, but unfortunately, these statistics are typical of city schools.
Rene is one of the quirkiest, most charming YA protagonists I've read. How did you come up with him?
Well, I’m not Rene. But I’m quirky. So I started there. I’m a big Batman fan, so I gave Rene a Batman cape. I’m an English teacher, so Rene has a man-crush on an English teacher. I think fireflies are coolest thing since gummy bears, so Rene does too. Rene is weird, and I have experience being weird, so we were a great match. I also teach a number of, shall I say, “interesting” 9th graders who are quirkier than Rene and I, so that helped.
Why do you think it's important for teens to read contemporary young adult fiction?
It shows them they're not alone. It shows them how or how not to resolve difficult situations. And it hopefully teaches them that it's okay to laugh at themselves.
What are some of your favorite contemporary YA books?
SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU by Peter Cameron
SOMETHING LIKE HOPE by Shawn Goodman
Duh! LIKE MANDARIN by Kirsten Hubbard
THE HATE LIST by Jennifer Brown
THE PULL OF GRAVITY by Gae Polisner
Matt's also running a Twitter contest that ends Friday, July 8th. Everyone is encouraged to post their quirk, their "thing," their obsession with the following hashtags: #myobsession #scaryscene
Examples: I double check the locks #myobsession #scaryscene. I park in the same exact parking spot #myobsession #scaryscene. I change seats if my team is losing #myobsession #scaryscene. I only go shopping on Thursdays #myobsession #scaryscene.
Each time someone uses those hashtags, they’ll be entered into a contest for one of 5 signed hardcover copies of A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE .