Monday, July 8, 2013

Dear Life, You Suck

I had low to no expectations for Dear Life, You Suck, an edgy young adult novel written by Scott Blagden. I had purchased the book at the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in May where Scott was one of the presenters. The intended recipient of the book was, and still is, my niece who's been struggling through her teen years. But before I passed the book along, I HAD to read the story first. And I'm so glad I did.

Cricket Cherpin, the rough-around-the-edges, suitcase-full-of-baggage sort of main character, twists, transforms and molds words and names into new shapes. As I read his words, their meaning wriggled under my skin and into my heart. Yes, there's profanity and the topics of sex, drugs, religion and suicide. So, maybe this book's not for every teen, but it is for every adult... because we have the power to twist, transform and mold the shape of our youths' futures. This book reminds us that we need to be careful how we choose to do so.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one who sees this book's merits. The Young Adult Library Services Association has nominated Dear Life, You Suck for their Best Fiction for Young Adults List.

Check out Scott's web site: 
and find him on Twitter @sblagden
Scott Blagden, author
What inspired you to write this story?
I'd written three previous novels, all very character-driven, and all very enthusiastically rejected by the publishing world. I decided to write something I thought I'd have better luck selling - a teen mystery full of action and suspense.

The original story was about a sixteen-year-old orphan who notices suspicious activity on an island across the bay from the orphanage where he lives. Kind of a Hardy Boys mystery with booze and profanity. As the main character developed, I realized the story was really about him, not some stupid island adventure. By the time I was done, barely a hint of the original plot remained.

Do/did you know a Cricket?
I had family "issues" growing up. Nothing as bad as Cricket, but enough to understand his underlying emotional and psychological motivations. Other than that, Cricket is completely fictional.

Cricket Cherpin. Great name. How'd you come up with it?
I wanted a name that matched his personality, something unusual and a little creepy. I picked Cherpin as his last name because his parents are the kind of nutcases who would name a kid Cricket Cherpin.

Who has made the greatest impact in your life? And how?
Personality and psychology-wise (i.e. writer stuff), there's a Willa Cather quote I really like: "Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen." There's a lot of truth in that statement, especially for writers of character-driven fiction. So for me, the answer would have to be my parents. My childhood is definitely the major source of my story material, at least for the inner-character-struggle stuff.

I like writing stories that explore our psychological and emotional molding in childhood. How we begin to recognize this in young adulthood, and how we react, or don't react, to what we discover. My favorite characters are those who react. Those who fight to overcome their past, those who don't let it control their future.

You have nailed down that elusive entity known as voice. How?
Cricket just popped into my head one day, which is unusual for me because I usually complete a full-blown character study before I start writing. But there he was, ranting and raving about parents, life, death, religion, girls, school, God, art. I couldn't shut him up, so I started writing him down.

I never imagined I could use any of it in an actual novel because he was so crude and profane. But I kept writing because he was so entertaining. My main goal was honesty. I wanted to tell Cricket's story in his authentic voice without watering it down for industry gatekeepers. He's a tough, angry, distrustful kid, and I wanted to give him the freedom to speak his mind, uncensored.

You are the King of word play. Is there a gene for that? Or did you have to really work at it?
Both. I definitely have a twisted imagination, and I guess that's a gene thing because many of the unusual word creations and combinations just came to me, but I also work very hard on word choice and sentence structure. When I write I always have an online dictionary, thesaurus, and rhyming website open on my computer.

Did writing this story feel like a mountainous climb or a stroll on the beach?
Nothing about writing is a stroll on the beach for me. Writing Dear Life, You Suck was a mountainous climb. I spent over a year hiking toward what I thought was the summit, only to find it was the foothills of another summit. Then I discovered another summit beyond that and another summit beyond that. It was a big mountain, but I finally got there.

Your Critique Group Cohorts... What do they mean to you?
The members of my critique group are an important aspect of my writing. It wasn't until my fourth novel that I joined a critique group. I was a closet novelist for many years, unwilling to share my work with anyone, certain I could do it all on my own. I didn't want to share my work until it was absolutely perfect, but I eventually realized that sharing my work before it's perfect helps me get it as close to perfect as I can.

Tell me about your prankiness... how has it hindered/helped you?
Like with all authors, our individual quirks and foibles help us in a huge way if we're willing to accept them and make them a part of our writing. I think that's the most important aspect of voice - finding our own voice, accepting it, and writing it.

I wrote several novels before DLYS in a voice that wasn't my own because I thought it was a voice that agents and editors would want. Obviously, that was a huge mistake.

My true writing voice didn't come until I let my true self gush out onto the page, the good, the bad and the ugly.

I could see this story on the big screen. Any talk of that?
Many readers have made that comment, but I haven't gotten the call from Hollywood. I left Quentin Tarantino a message on his cell phone, but he hasn't called me back yet. He'd be a good director for a character like Cricket.

Any advice for struggling teens?
I would just mention what I learned about my teen years when I was in my 20s, which is that things do change. They do get better. When I was in my teens, I didn't think that anything would ever change no matter how old I got, and that left me feeling incredibly hopeless about my future. I felt that the struggles I was going through were indicative of life itself, not necessarily life at that particular point in time. I'm glad I stuck it out because things do change, especially when we're old enough to make our own life choices, like where we live and who we live with.

How about for struggling writers?
It sounds cliché, but it's true- Don't give up. It may take four novels (like me) before you get published (or five or ten or twenty), but if you focus on becoming a better writer instead of becoming a published author, you'll get there.

Write every day. Even if it's only 30 minutes a day, write!

And never stop studying the craft. I just finished reading From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. It opened my eyes to issues of craft I was completely blind to.


Scott's launch party at Waxy O'Connor's, an Irish pub in Foxborough, MA, which drew in over 100 attendees!

 (Back Row, Left to Right) Betsy Groban (Senior VP and Publisher of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group), Scott Blagden (the author),  Connor Blagden (Scott's son),  and Rubin Pfeffer (Scott's agent)

(Front Row, L to R) Riley and Tanner Wigmore (Scott's nephews), Madison Blagden (Scott's daughter), and Madison Durr (Madison's friend)

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