The Absolute Value of Mike

The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine (Mockingbird) is a novel about this 14 almost 15 year old boy named Mike, who is sent to spend the summer with his great aunt and uncle, Moo and Poppy, resepctively, because his distant genius father is going abroad to teach in Romania and he isn't allowed to take unsupervised kids with him. At first, to be honest, I didn't care for the story. It was a bit too quirky. Moo, nearly blind but in denial, has named her truck Tyrone, and misses being in one wreck after another, seemingly magically; Poppy sits like a statue in his livingroom, depressed at the loss of his son; Past, a homeless guy, has eyes like Bono's (the U2 frontman) and exhudes all kinds of wisdom; there are three guys called the Three Stooges; and one more quirky character after another. But the story eventually grew on me. The town is helping Karen, the town minister who also has lost a husband, to adopt a boy from Romania (a coincidence that Mike's dad is teaching there) named Misha (also a coincidence that Misha stands for Mike). But Mike, a kid, makes it all happen, after some turmoil. All in all, it's a good read.


Q&A with Nancy/Stella's 7th Grade Readers!

Q: What age were you when you wrote a book?

RS: When I wrote my first book, The Jumping Tree, that Delacorte/Random House published in 2001, I was in my late 20s. I had promised myself that I'd get my first book out by the time I was 30. I'd read in college (Bob Jones University) that my favorite writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, had told himself he'd publish his first book by 21 or around then, and he did. I was already passed this age so I just rounded up. And I did. Kind of. I was 29 or 30 when the book was contracted.

Q: What do you do when you run out of ideas?

RS: I don't think we can run out of ideas. The world is too full of material from which to pick to write about. I'll pay attention to everything and everyone around me, I jot down in my writer's notebook or put in the back of my mind, the stuff I find the most interesting. When I need an idea for a story or a poem, I go back to my notebook or think about what I've seen, smelled, heard, touched and decide, this detail/person/etc. is where I'll start. And I go from there. In Finding Our Way, for instance, in "SylvieSylvieSylvie" there's a scene where the main character is explaining, in his own way, part of why he's the way he is; it's the flashback where he remembers his mom screaming and beating on his sisters. I took that from a magazine picture I'd cut out of a magazine.

Q: What is the hardest part of becoming an author?

RS: You've got to be patient. Few are he examples of a person who picks up a pen one day, writes a story or poem or article, having never done so before, and within a month sells that piece. For me, it was around 10 years before I published something. It was a poem. And it wasn't easy street after that one. It took a while longer before I published something else. But all the while I kept telling myself, "Rene, this is worthwhile. Keep it up. You won't regret it." The hardest part, then, is all the rejection you'll get at the outset, because it is hurtful for editors to keep telling you no, no, no, we don't like your work. But you persist, you keep going back to the drawing board, you keep making your stuff better, and one way or another all that hard work'll pay off.

Q: How do you know when your stories are completely perfect?

RS: I don't know it. I'll think I'm finished with a story, and on re-reading it, I find something, huge or small that can get better. And that's the idea of revision: to make the story better, clearer for my readers to get fully, or as fully as one can without being the writer. In the story "Alternative," for example (which is one of my favorite stories to read aloud to groups of students), after the book came out, I was reading it to an audience and in the moment I realized it could be better, so I stopped partway into my reading, pulled out my pen, and made the change I wanted to make. Then I re-read it and kept going. I'm retyping that same story in the hopes of publishing it in another book, and guess what? I'm making changes again. You'll remember the part that talks about technology: Atari/Playstation becomes texting and messaging. But also some bigger stuff. I'm considering mentioning Arturo's dad, because a student once pointed out that I hadn't included a dad and was that part of why Arturo is the way he is. I haven't decided to make him a dad very much in his life or a dead-beat dad.

Hey, if I'm ever in Chicago and I've got a couple hours off, I'll make sure to drop by. I'm coming in November for a conference, but my time there is taken up all the way through. But some other time. You'll have to keep in touch, keep reading my books, keep reading other people's books, and just maybe, right?



Almost Awards/Honors for A Good Long Way

So, yeah, though my novel didn't get the award for the Texas Institute of Letters' award for YA novels, I was a finalist, the only finalist (the winner was Dotie Enderlie), and The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College chose A Good Long Way as an Honor Book for the 2011 Paterson Prize for Books for Young People. They write: "Our judges were very impressed by your book and felt it deserved special recognition." How very cool is that.