Brian Wapole on Friendship, Loss, & Inter-Dependence
By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: February 13, 2012
Brian is the author of the young people’s novel The Feast of the Moon, a former high school English teacher, a free-lance writer, private tutor and fiction wizard for the Schaumburg Township District Library. Brian is currently writing a sequel to The Feast of the Moon as well as a novel about the ghost of a seventeen-year old boy striving to get the most out of death. His blog, Five-Minute Bedtime Stories, mines his extensive storytelling experience.
TCBR: Can you share a little on your background and how you became a children’s book writer?
Brian Wapole: I grew up on the Northwest side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Albany Park. In Chicago, neighborhoods are everything. They’re like cantons, or enclaves. Sometimes they are ethnically divided, sometimes racially, sometimes culturally, sometimes by religion. So you got these layers upon layers of worldviews that as a youngster shape how you see yourself and others. Albany Park, however, was integrated. So we grew up having friends who were Jewish or Protestants or Catholic…Hispanic, Korean, Filipino, African-American and Eastern European…white-collar or blue-collar…I grew up seeing things from many different points of view. That is one way to become a writer.
As for being a children’s writer: think that comes from me being a storyteller. And a lot of that comes from the fact that my twin sister and I are the youngest of seven siblings. We grew up with nieces and nephews who were only six, seven, eight years younger than we were…and we told them stories and devised little games to play with them.
As for my writing background: I’ve written ad copy, press releases, copy for web pages and news articles. I also taught English and ESL in the Chicago Public Schools.
I have a long-time friend who adopted three children. When they were little I used to tell them stories and take them on walks to the prairie preserve across from their home. I nicknamed them “Otter,” “Squirrel,” and “Chipmunk.” The youngest, Chipmunk, pestered her mom for a hamster. Two years later when that hamster died she pestered her mom for another one, and so on, every 2 to 2 ½ years, from age 7 to age 14. By the time the last hamster was on its last legs, “Chipmunk,” was busy with her own life (she was 14, remember) and her mom was left caring for the poor little guy. Her mom had had it up to here dealing with the inevitable sad decline of a hamster’s dying days…not to mention all the crying from “Chipmunk.” So she asked me to take the hamster to my house to escort him to “the feast of the moon,” so to speak.
I think she said, “take him to the Vet’s (euthanize him) or keep him until he dies…whatever you decide is fine – just don’t tell me.” So I cared for him for his last 48hrs, and then he died in the night, and that was that.
However, while the hamster was with me I was writing…and writing poorly. I was fretting that I would ever be able to stream words in any coherence beyond a thank you note. In desperation I declared, “I will write about anything, literally anything, that flows through my head into my wrist (I write in longhand).” And what came out was The Feast of the Moon. I had no intention of writing a novel about a hamster. In fact, everyday for two weeks I told myself, “Okay, this is the last day I will write about this little rat.” But it never was. I wrote the novel until it was finished…and I am happy I did so.
And that scene (me almost ending his story every day) shows up in the Epilogue.
Would you say that friendship is the main theme?
Friendship, yes. And Loss. I think kids experience loss all the time, yet it often goes unrecognized. When you’re ten, eleven, twelve years old and a friend moves away or gets switched to a different homeroom or an elder sibling goes off to college – that is a huge deal. And often the hurt is borne in silence. So, I laced together the themes of Friendship and Loss as a way of speaking to that experience.
But the primary theme is the victory of Inter-dependence over Honor. Growing up is really the movement from dependence through independence to inter-dependence (that’s not my idea, by the way). A competing model is the one our society employs today, which idealizes earning fame and being respected in other people’s eyes, in other words: Honor. Today, maturation is achieved and recognized when a youngster is tested and tested until he or she finally earns the stamp of approval from the powers that be. He “has honor,” or she’s “honored,” or he is now the “honorable this or that”, or “Sir this or that,” right? A culture that idealizes Honor is really telling its youth that they are not valued for who they are, but rather for how closely they toe the line. The little hero in my story is obsessed with achieving honor; he wants to be a “hamster of old.” But what he learns (after achieving his goal, I might add; he becomes a heroic hamster!) is that honor “is a husk,” in his words. It is protecting the real thing of value. In this case…well, you’ll have to read the novel to discover what he learns. But I will tell you that it has everything to do with inter-dependence, friendship and loss.
So, your hero-hamster is the narrator of the story. Did you ever consider another creature for this role?
It was a hamster from jump. But for those first few weeks when I was trying to abandon the story every time I sat down to write I also tried to kick the hamster off the set and hire a new leading man. But it was his story…his will was stronger than mine, I guess.
Humans and animals both have strong roles in the book’s plot development, is there a character that you found easier to write?
They all came naturally. I didn’t have a difficult time representing any of them, or capturing their voices. I imagine if I had, I would’ve dumped the project without a second thought. And most of my best writing came in the revision stages. I would stare at a passage thinking, “something is not right here…” and then a new phrase in the voice of an animal would come to me. One time I was staring at a phrase, “chain of days.” It was the hamster’s way of saying, “my lifetime” or “a long time.” I used that phrase several times and liked it. A short-lived animal would be more apt to think of days being strung together as opposed to years passing – they might understand seasons passing, but not years, as such. But for weeks after the rough draft was finished something about the phrase nettled me. And then it came to me: it should be, “vine of days.” A hamster doesn’t know what a chain is; but he would know vines. So I went through the text and was able find 10-15 places where if I changed the image/metaphor to something organic, something wild, it not only made the novel more consistent in its world-view (the metaphors and descriptors are all of nature) it also improved the language: it was better writing.
Which character do you find readers connect with the most?
The book was just released, but from its early feedback (happily, for me) there is no favorite character. The hero-hamster and Chipmunk (his 12yr old human friend), are 1A and 1B. And adult woman really like the hamster’s mate, the other hamster in the story. She is tough, independent, decisive, taciturn…she’s basically a female version of Clint Eastwood at his coolest. And boys seem to like Shrew, who is the hero-hamster’s BFF. But if I had to commit I’d say it’s a tie between Chipmunk (the girl), and the hamster-narrator.
What age group did you write the book for?
Sixth through ninth graders and parents. I wrote it to appeal to both groups without boring (hopefully!) either one, nor talking down to either group. The hamster (his name matters at the end of the story, so I won’t reveal it, here) is not an infallible journalist. He gets a lot wrong when discussing humans. And many of these mistakes lead to poignant revelations…assuming you’re of a certain vintage. Kids feel connected to some scenes within the plot; their parents get others, but no one feels like they are missing out on either the “in” joke, or the grownup conversation.
I almost forgot! I have a blog, “Five Minute Bedtime Stories,” which are, well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. I started it because multiple readers of The Feast of Moon told me that it was a great “chapter a night” book to read to younger kids. So, now I post original stories for younger kids – maybe parents looking for free, quick bedtime stories will be motivated to purchase the novel. Anyway, the novel appeals to younger readers, too, I guess. The blog is at “brianwapole.com.”
You are currently writing the prequel to The Feast of the Moon. What can you tell us about this book? Should we expect to see any more installments of this series?
It centers on the mate’s life before she makes her appearance in TFOTM. This is the Clint Eastwood hamster I’m talking about. In keeping with the theme that I keep trying to not write these books:
I didn’t want to write a sequel. But a fellow writer read TFOTM and told me I had to write another one…that she had to know more about these characters. And did I have a back story written? Yes, I told her; of course I wrote a back-story. I needed the back-story in order to make the characters three-dimensional.
“Then write the next novel!” she told me.
I told her I had no idea what to write or how and anyway, “I have this other novel I’m working on.”
However, I went to bed that night and woke up the next day with the skeleton of the prequel completely worked out, plus the first 250 words in the form of an opening speech. And I’ve been writing it ever since. I’m about half-done, I think.
Which books from your own childhood have most influenced your life?
Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Paddington Bear, the poems of Eugene Field, many, many non-fiction titles. Throw the Long Bomb (which is no longer in print) and Crackerjack Halfback – these were all books that influenced my life as an early reader. They goaded me into puzzling over the largest concepts I was capable of pondering at the time. As for influencing the writing of TFOTM: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I saw your jaw drop. Yes, there is very little similarity between the world of The Road and the “sky-wide” prairie of my novel. But as I was writing TFOTM I read a few pages of McCarthy’s book every day to remind myself of what magnificent writing looked like. Also, the father in The Road and my hamster share the same fierce devotion to their children.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
TFOTM is written as a memoir beginning when the hamster is very young and continuing until the very end of his life. When he is young he is consumed with the idea of experiencing as much as he can: seeing, smelling and hearing everything. As he matures he becomes concerned with sensing and communicating feelings.
If you find yourself seeing through a character’s eyes rather than the author’s eyes then you are reading a good book. If you find yourself feeling through the character’s skin, then it’s a great book. That’s how I’d like TFOTM to be judged.
To learn more, visit: http://brianwapole.com/
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