On a recent trip to Portland, OR, I made sure to leave time to meet Jerry McGill, the author of Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me (iUniverse.com, 2009). I discovered this memoir a few years ago while browsing iUniverse, and now, in my opinion, it’s a contender for the Alex Award, which honors books that have been written for adults but also have teen appeal. McGill was only 13 when he was shot in the back while walking home on New Year’s Eve, and the attack left him a quadriplegic. On a gorgeous late-summer day, he rolled up to our meeting place under his own power, and joined me to talk about his book.
It’s great to see you getting around on your own! I thought you’d be in an electric wheelchair, since in your book, you only had movement in your left hand when you left the hospital.
I’m lucky. The biggest thing for me is that I can be independent. My life would have been completely different if I’d have needed 24-hour service. I wouldn’t be as optimistic for one thing. I like to know I can get away by myself. While I’m a huge social person, I’m also a loner in a sense. One of my favorite things to do is go away for a week to a new town and just check it all out.
How is Portland in terms of accessibility?
Portland is an awesome city with great accessible mass transit. I’m at the point where I want to drive less. I needed a city that had culture and a dash of diversity. I hate when restaurants don’t have accessible restrooms.
Portland has really embraced you as a writer. Was there a big turnout at your first book-signing?
A dream come true! And more fun things: Powell’s Books had a scavenger hunt this month, and my book and I will were there.
Growing up, did you go to the library?
I didn’t go to the library—my mom had overdue books on her card and we couldn’t [afford to] pay the fines.
That really bothers me! Did you have a favorite book?
As a child, I was actually a huge Judy Blume fan! My favorite was Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. But I did love them all.
Your book challenges all sorts of stereotypes—and you just blew away another one, which is that boys don’t read books about girls.
Really? I guess I’ve always wanted to know about all kinds of people.
You recently retired as a high school English teacher, which you’ve written was “the most challenging, the most frustrating, and in many ways the most rewarding profession that you’ve ever held.” What are some of the most important qualities that educators need to reach children?
Patience, and the ability to really listen to them.
Have you completely healed from the trauma of being shot? Is there anything you are scared of?
I’ve traveled, I’ve done things many people my age, from my neighborhood, haven’t had a chance to do. I think it would be ungrateful for me to still be hung up on the shooting. Yes, there are things that take years and years and continue to evolve, such as my relationship with family. That has been forever changed and impacted by this experience. Honestly, there isn’t anything I am scared of. I think I’ve lived through it!
I love how your book started out as a self-published memoir and was eventually published by Spiegel & Grau earlier this year. How long did it take you to write it?
Off and on maybe a year and a half to two years. It went through several phases. The story initially began when I was two years old, and I was going through every detail of my life. Dalton Conley’s publisher [Conley was a childhood friend and writes about McGill’s shooting in his book Honky (Vintage, 2001)] gave me the best advice I ever got. She wrote me and said, “Your story sounds interesting but you are doing too much. Pare it down to one or two incidents. Don’t make it the grand opus of your life.” She inspired me to make the book about my six months in the hospital and what I learned there.
I was also inspired by Isabelle Allende’s book Paula: a Memoir . In this book, Allende speaks to her daughter as she is in a coma and dying of a rare disease at a very young age. The book is so powerful. It stuck with me and was the spark to write my book as a letter to the unknown assailant, to give him a name. That’s when the book really took off.
How old were you when you began to write? And what are you working on these days?
Writing has always been with me, as long as I can remember. I enjoy creating characters. I am working on a few things actually—a series of short stories all surrounding an upper-class black family (I like to think of them as my Glass family), a huge fictional novel about an interracial, May-to-December affair that ended tragically and the effects it had on the people close to it, and a series of interviews with quadriplegics around the world who came to be that way as the result of an “incident.” I will be interviewing a Kenyan, a Ugandan paralympic, a woman from El Salvador, and another from a small city in France. I’d like to find someone in each country to interview. I am truly excited about it.
Do you have a secret talent?
I can still sing and carry a decent tune. For years, I took singing and acting lessons.
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