(Host) Rutland novelist Doug Wilhelm writes books for young adults, and is known for his realistic portrayal of teens.
In his last novel, three seventh graders use the internet to fight bullying. In his most recent book, Wilhelm tackles heroin abuse and sets his story in Rutland.
As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, local middle schoolers helped the author develop the story.
(Keck) Doug Wilhelm describes Falling, his new novel — as a love story. Actually, it’s a first love story between ninth graders Matt and Katie. But to make the love story more interesting, Wilhelm wanted there to be an underlying problem. Since he leads an after school writers’ workshop at Rutland Middle School — he went to eighth graders there for ideas.
(Wilhelm) “So I said I want each one of you to take a piece of paper and write for me one true problem. Either a problem in your own life or a problem in your friends’ lives or a problem you know to be true in Rutland. And they did and what I noticed was how much real danger is in a lot of young adult, adolescent lives nowadays – you know we have a very serious drug problem in Rutland – heroine problem and a crack problem as so many communities do. So my original idea was to write a love story with danger. And the danger that developed was that the older brother of the boy in this couple has become a heroine addict and the boy is trying to hide the truth because he’s afraid it will destroy his family if it gets out.”
(Keck) To make the story believable, the 55-year old author knew his characters had to seem real. So he again turned to eighth grade English students for help.
(Wilhelm) “I knew that these kids knew those characters much more than I would. What kind of music did they listen to? If a boy and a girl like each other at this age how do they interact – what do they do to get together? Is it always in a group or is it sometimes alone? How would they communicate? Text messaging? Email? Voice? Cell phone? These are questions that us middle age writers don’t always know the answer to.”
(Keck) Since music and computers are so important to today’s teens, Wilhelm includes several pages of text messages that his characters send back and forth. The author says it took a while to learn the symbolism and syntax of instant messaging. Wilhelm even creates a fictional hip hop artist he thinks Matt, his main character, would relate to. Still, the focus of the story is Matt and Katie’s budding relationship. The author admits discussing teen relationships with his middle school advisors was sometimes troubling.
(Wilhelm) “There was this moment in one of the three eighth grade English classes where we talked about whether these two lovers – the boy and girl in the center story – would have sex. I hadn’t thought they would. And I had an eighth grade class where the girls said she’s going to fall in love with him and then she’s going to have sex with him and then she’s going to be obsessed. And they were interested in the difference between love and obsession. And I said — oh — I don’t know if I can do that. And they said well you said it was going to be realistic. Is it going to be realistic or not?”
(Keck) While teen characters in the novel, Falling are explored in depth, parents hover on the fringe of the story. We know little about Katie’s mother other than she’s a single mom trying to make ends meet. Matt’s parents are wealthy workaholics who are sadly oblivious to the drug abuse going on in their own home. Wilhelm says one early book review criticized the story as unrealistic because the boy’s parents were so out of touch.
(Wilhelm) “The same day that that came out I got an email from a local family practitioner in Rutland who said she had read the book and she said’ I see that in my office every day – kids lives are falling apart and the parents don’t know because the parents are so busy so it was an interesting contrast.’”
(Keck) Rutland author Doug Wilhelm says he doesn’t try to write books with a particular message or lesson. He’d rather his books have meaning.
(Wilhelm) “And meaning is something you take out a story. And it has everything to do with what you the reader bring to it. Have you struggled with the issue of whether to do drugs or to have sex as a teenager? Or do you have kids who have? Have you dealt with the loneliness that Matt has or the sense that nobody would understand what’s going on in your life so you have to hide it? Have you dealt with the feelings of outgrowing your best friends and plunging into something you’re not quite ready for the way Katie has? So if you bring that to the story – I think you get your own meaning out of it.”
(Keck) Wilhelm is already at work on his next book – about a Pakistani girl and American boy who struggle to form a friendship despite their cultural and religious differences.
For VPR news, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.