November 17, 2017

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Can You Hear Me Now? The Missing SummerTeen Chris Lynch Interview

The technology gods were not on Chris Lynch’s side on July 24, when he was scheduled to appear on a panel with Kwame Alexander discussing their sports genre YA titles. SLJTeen has been able to procure a few snippets from  reviews editor Kiera Parrott, who moderated the sports session. To read the full interview, please visit the sports panel archive in the SummerTeen auditorium.

Chris LynchTell us about your new book, Slot Machine (OpenRoad Media, 2014). How did it come about?

Slot Machine grew out of a sort of hybrid of real events at my high school and my interpretation/embellishment of them. I went to a Christian Brothers school, and as a kind of bonding experience they ran something called the Freshman Overnight. As the name implies, all the incoming frosh were brought into the school and made to stay awake all night playing a nonstop rotation of competitive games against each other, such as floor hockey and basketball. It was a fairly surreal experience all around and I often wondered whoever it was who came up with the scheme. It was fun for a while but gradually people got rather punchy and wobbly from fatigue and sleep deprivation (not to mention the enterprising few who managed to get mind-altering substances in with them). It was very much an in-with-bang, out-with-whimper result as parents collected lifeless Gumby figures in exchange for the relatively functional kids they had dropped off the night before.

Was the overnight successful? Not sure what kind of gauge one could use to measure such a thing. I did feel like I had established a few Lord of the Flies-inspired strategic relationships during that long night. But beyond that, it appeared to be a social experiment, an observational exercise for the staff to size us up in terms of character, leadership skills, ruthlessness, and the ever-elusive winner gene that would then rear its big toothy well-groomed head at every important moment for the rest of the kid’s life.

Slot MachineWhat it did for me as a writer, though, was to see an obvious system of “slotting” guys from an early stage. Organizations such as my school found a benefit in getting an early idea of who was going to be a fighter, a schemer, sycophantic pilot fish, a brain-without-frame or his opposite, the headless plow horse. This is oversimplifying things, of course, but the notion of slotting students into categories that could be read at a glance was certainly a style of management that appealed to administrators who hadn’t the time, the perceptiveness or often the inclination to take 2,000 students every day and figure them out as individuals with infinitely varied and ever-shifting characteristics.

But pulling in to a very tight focus, I had my guy, Elvin Bishop. This was a sports-oriented facility, and Elvin brought very little to the table in that regard. He was clever and creative and funny, but as big a deal as sports was, arts sensibilities of any kind were less than an afterthought. So the story ultimately is, well what do we (school, society) do with you if we don’t have a slot for you? How do we understand you? How do we steer and manage you along a path that doesn’t seem to exist for you?

Elvin takes a pasting in pretty much every sport he tries. But, he tries. And the worse things get for him, the more his humor comes to the surface. I have always felt that the events of Slot Machine are decidedly not funny. It is Elvin’s telling of those events that is the comedy, the light, the ultimate victory of one pudgy non-athlete in a competition that was always set up to defeat him. The adversity of competition and of the varied humiliations he suffers, is what causes him to find his voice, and his ultimate retort to whatever life will bring him in the future.

The tagline for this panel includes the phrase “No longer just for the reluctant reader.” But sports fiction has long been a secret weapon used by teachers, librarians, and parents to get reluctant readers—especially boys—hooked on reading. On GuysRead.com, Jon Scieszka wrote that boys often “don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction. . . . Boys don’t have enough positive male role models for literacy. Because the majority of adults involved in kids’ reading are women, boys might not see reading as a masculine activity.” What do you think about the connection between reluctant boy readers and your books?

The connection between reluctant readers and my work has always been clear to me. We are of the same tribe. I was very much the reluctant reader as a kid. I read so slowly and went over the same paragraphs so many times, I just didn’t know what was wrong. Even today, that remains more or less the case. Considering what I do for a living I still find it remarkable that I never voluntarily read a work of fiction until I was in university.

But I adore reading and writing, composing the elements that will speak to another reader the way I always hope to be spoken to. I am conscious of trying to keep my writing as lean and tight as possible, saying it all in the fewest words without sacrificing meaning in the process. I think a certain type of reader respects that and gravitates toward it. It feels right to me, not aiming for the big magnum opus one day, because I believe I should not aspire to writing books I would not aspire to read.

Also, I am aware of the connection between subject matter—sports, violence, war—and the young male’s willingness to pick the book up in the first place. It’s okay to consider masculinity and self-image in identifying with a book or movie or any other activity. Physical excitement is one of many elements we use to bring readers into what we consider the real depths of the stories we tell. Because to me, I feel like in every case what I am really writing about is the uniquely beautiful experience that is true friendship. I’ll even go further—possibly scaring off some readers too—and say that no matter what each one of my books looks like on the surface, to me I’m always writing a love story.

Do you think sports and the structure of games, competition, etc., allow readers to explore emotions (and maybe deeper themes) in ways that are different than in other genres?

Sports does provide a structure within which guys in particular can emote without embarrassment. Because of the togetherness, the united sense of purpose, and the physical closeness, characters can get away with expressing themselves on and off the playing field in ways that just wouldn’t fly for a lot of readers in any other setting. And to that I say, nice work sports, and thanks for unlocking some sorely pent-up youngsters.

When you sit down to work on a new book, where do you start? Do you begin with a strong idea for a character? The plot? Do you ever start with the sport?

I always start with character. I feel like what I know is humanity, and I can learn other specifics as the story demands them. I did, for sure, know from the start that Elvin was going to be spectacularly unsuited to each sport, but that the system’s insistence on jamming  him forcibly into one slot or another was going to be the making of the man.

You have a knack for describing the intricate details of a game while keeping the energy, the emotion, and the tension high (so that even readers not familiar with the intricacies of the sport in question can follow along.) How do you do that? How do you boil down those essential components to keep readers, whether they are sports fans or not, engaged?

It’s funny, and basically involuntary, but even as I have gotten older and my interest in sports has waned, as soon as I write a scene or even catch a glimpse of some good action on TV, I am right back in there, captivated by the individual elements I always loved from the earliest days. Certain individual skills—hitting a three-pointer in basketball, for instance, or throwing a split-fingered fastball that is so nasty and illogically alive with movement that the frozen batter just seems to be pretending that it never happened—seem to me to be so universally mesmerizing that all I need to do as a writer is say what the guy did and everyone will understand the magic of it.

For the complete interview, please visit the SummerTeen auditorium and select the sports panel archive. If you haven’t registered for SummerTeen, you will be presented with a registration form first, but then will be able to view the archive immediately.

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Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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