Our Stars, Our Memories (Or, a YA Reminder)

“So, why do you write YA fiction?” is a question I get often.  “What is it about YA that inspires you to write in that genre?”

I suppose the question is natural enough.  After all, The Eye-Dancers is a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel, and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, due out late this summer, is as well.  But the truth is, I’m not a YA writer–at least, not exclusively.  Prior to The Eye-Dancers, in fact, I had rarely ventured into the YA waters.  For years, I wrote short stories–dozens of them.  And nearly all of them are mainstream/literary.

 

Even at that time, though, there was an occasional appeal to write about younger protagonists.  One story in particular, called “Marbles,” about a teenage boy who has a moment of epiphany causing him to realize and fully embrace that he’s no longer a child, and that he must look forward and prepare for his life as an adult, stayed with me.  It wasn’t long after writing “Marbles” that I began working on The Eye-Dancers.

 

It’s odd on the surface.  I am a long way from being a teenager myself.  The days of junior high and high school, for me, reside in a previous century, back when smartphones were unheard of and the personal computer was only just becoming mainstream.  When I was in junior high, Larry Bird was the three-time reigning NBA MVP, postage stamps cost 25 cents, and Tiffany was topping the pop charts with “Could’ve Been.”

 

It was a long time ago.

And yet . . . are we ever truly beyond our formative years?  Do we ever “outgrow” our first date, our first rejection, our first triumph?  Experiences from our past do not disappear like smoke upon an autumn breeze.  They linger.  Sometimes they hide in the shadows, buried beneath the layers of intervening years.  Other times they rise to the fore, reminders of an experience decades gone, remarkably vivid, as sharp and vibrant in our mind’s eye as the day they happened.

 

But still.  Why revisit the old haunts of adolescence on purpose?  Why write an entire novel (or two!) about teenage protagonists up to their chins in angst and insecurities?  Why walk the perilous path down memory lane that retouches old wounds and scabs?  It’s something many writers, as well as readers, do.  In fact, a 2012 survey concluded that 55 percent of YA readers are adults.  Again, the question of why resurfaces.

 

I can’t speak for others, only myself, and for me, writing The Eye-Dancers–and now, finishing up The Singularity Wheel–has been a labor of love.  The characters of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton were all inspired by neighborhood friends from my childhood, and then merged together with sprinklings from my own life.  When, for instance, I describe Mitchell’s enjoyment of his favorite comic book in chapter 1 of The Singularity Wheel, I am, in essence, remembering my own discovery of that same issue when I was a teenager . . .

 

“He refocused on Fantastic Four number 51.  It was a remarkable issue—the first appearance of The Negative Zone, an alternate universe composed of negative, rather than positive, matter.  In the story, Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, has just made the discovery and resolves to explore this new and dangerous place.  He journeys through the void, bridges the gap between dimensions.

“Just like I did once, he thought.  Like we all did.  Five years ago.”

Of course, I’ve never traveled across time and space, as Mitchell has, but the appreciation he and I share for old comic books is real–and a reminder for me of what it was like when I was Mitchell’s age.

 

Not all of my adolescent memories are positive. Some of my most humiliating experiences happened in school.  Like so many others, I was at times the butt of jokes, the object of derision.  In high school, I struggled with acne and was overweight.  Believe me, I was made aware of both on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis.

 

But I was lucky.  Even on the worst days, I understood that.  I had a strong, stable family life–my parents never moved.  Many of our neighbors remained the same through the years.  Friendships in the old neighborhood ran deep.  The real-life inspirations for Mitchell, Joe, Marc, and Ryan would all get together with me–especially in summer.  We’d hang out on the driveway, shooting baskets; we’d invent games and spend entire afternoons arguing about the ever-evolving rules, having a blast the whole time; when we grew a little older, became teenagers, we’d talk about the things adolescent boys talk about, and we’d compete in sports and play strategic board games that lasted for hours.

 

Through it all, there was a camaraderie that was resilient, strong, enduring.  We still keep in touch today–not that often, not like we used to.  But whenever we get together, special things happen.  The years peel away, and the memories merge with the present day, creating a synchronicity in the space-time continuum that can only be described as magic.  And I am taken back to a simpler time, a time when forty was still decades hence, when, despite setbacks and doubts and insecurities, opportunities still seemed endless and all things were possible.

 

Maybe that’s why we write, and read, YA fiction, even as we get older.  Maybe as we take on the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood, as we perhaps feel trapped in a career we don’t love, a situation we can’t extricate ourselves from, a diagnosis we can’t pretend away, we need a reminder.  We need to remember what it was like when we were young.

 

As I look back through the lens of memory, I remember those summer evenings, lingering in the driveway, leaning against the car, talking with my friends as we swatted at the mosquitoes in seek of our blood and watched the fireflies dance and glow in the dark.  We’d talk about nothing, and everything.  We weren’t in a hurry.  Just being there was enough.

 

And we’d look up at the night sky, feel a sense of awe, and wonder.  I hope that sense of awe, that desire to probe and question and discover, that willingness to wonder and to believe in the so-called “impossible,” remains always.  I hope it never grows old.

 

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Or, The Dirt Hole at the Side of the Yard)

The summer when I was eight years old, I fell in love with digging.  Not just any digging.  Not some small pea-hole in the corner of the yard.  No.  I went all-in. I recruited my friend Matt, and together, we planned on digging our way straight through to the center of the earth.

centerofearth

Of course, the question had come up–where could we even undertake our mission?  My mother wouldn’t go for us digging up her flower garden or vegetable garden.  She wouldn’t want us to tear up the front yard, either.  That didn’t leave us with many options.  We asked if we could use the side yard.

flowergarden

The side yard consisted of a narrow alley that separated our house from our neighbor’s.  Abutting our house was a red-brick patio that led to the back gate, but beyond that was a small strip of grassy real estate just begging to be ripped into.  The thing was, that small strip wasn’t technically on our property.  It belonged to our next-door neighbor, George.

George had lived in that house since it was built, decades ago.  He lived there with his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons (who, incidentally, inspired two of the characters in The Eye-Dancers!)  At the time, he was a tall, jovial man in his sixties who, every Christmas, dressed up as Santa Claus.  As far as I was concerned, there was no chance he’d tell us we couldn’t dig a dirt hole in the side yard.

santa

And he didn’t.  He said, “Go ahead!”

My father handed Matt and me a pair of shovels and told us not to overdo it.  “Just take it easy,” he said.

gardenshovel

By lunchtime, we’d already tunneled down several feet.  When my mother came out to check on our progress, I was standing in the hole, nearly up to my chest.  Matt was up top, examining a large rock we’d unearthed.

“I don’t think George thought you’d be digging a hole that deep,” she said, her eyes wide.  I swelled with pride.  All this in just a few hours . . .

We ate heartily, our appetites stoked, and then resumed with our work.  We widened the hole, making sure we had plenty of elbow room, and created small earthen “steps” on one of the sides, ensuring that we’d be able to climb out once we dug in over our heads.  By three o’clock that afternoon, we were both drenched in sweat.  But we didn’t stop, didn’t slow down.

“We’re almost in all the way,” Matt said when the top of the hole was at eye level.  “How far do you think we can go?”

“All the way,” I said.  In my mind, we had only just begun.  We had an entire summer before us, yawning like a chasm full of wonders.  “And who knows what we’ll find down here.  Maybe we’ll even see Merwks.”  Merwks (not a typo–the “w” was very important!) were creatures who inhabited the depths of the earth.  They were small, brown, furry monstrosities with no eyes and fangs sharp enough to sever stones.  I had first imagined them two years earlier, and was convinced they existed.  When I told Matt about them, he was sold.

fangs

“We better be careful,” he said.  “Merwks have sharp teeth!”

We brought our shovels down again, and again, and again, striking earth, eager to discover ancient secrets, buried treasures, perhaps even a skeleton or two.  We were tired, bone-tired, but our effort did not flag, our eagerness did not waver.  There was a new universe that awaited, monsters in the dark we needed to reveal.  Looking back now, I can still remember, clearly, vividly, the elation I felt that day.  I was young and free, embarking on an adventure for the ages.

buriedtreasure

But then my mother came outside and put an end to it.

“That’s enough for today, boys,” she said.  “Time’s up.”

We whined a little, but we were tired enough not to carry on with it too long.  There was tomorrow, after all.

Or was there?  My mother warned me that when George came home that night, he might not like seeing his side yard with a four-foot-deep hole smack dab in the middle of it.

“But he already said we could dig,” I protested.

“I’m not sure he realized how . . . committed . . . you were,” she said.

When George got back, we all joined him at the side of the yard.  He smiled at me when I looked up at him.

My mother apologized for the size of the hole, told him she hadn’t expected it to be such a crater.  But George held up a hand.

“They’re only kids once,” he said.  “Let ’em dig.”

playonlykidsonce

And so we did.  Matt and I were at it the next day.  We had Merwks to find.

*******************

Anytime I begin a new writing project, I need to feel excited.  I might have a workable idea, a complex plot, an intriguing protagonist, but if I don’t feel completely fired up, I know, before I even start, that the story will go nowhere.  Over the years, I have tried to force it, attempted to manufacture enthusiasm that wasn’t there organically.  It never works.  At least not for me.

enthusiasm

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I truly believed it was a one-shot deal.  Sure, I’d write other stories, other novels.  I wasn’t retiring as a writer.  But I didn’t plan or intend for there to be a sequel.  Then, about a year and a half ago, I had–for lack of a better term–a vision.

I was lying in bed in the middle of the night–something had jarred me awake.  A dream?  A nightmare?  Something my subconscious had been wrestling with, interacting with?  I suppose I’ll never know.  All I know is that, when I woke up, I visualized something with crystal clarity.  I saw a huge building, larger than a dozen football fields, its walls and columns climbing high into a nighttime sky.  I saw the four main characters of The Eye-DancersMitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–standing before the structure, gazing up at the sky.  They weren’t looking at the moon or the stars or a meteor that had entered Earth’s atmosphere, afire, burning up as it sped toward the surface.

meteor

They were staring, transfixed, at a pair of blue eyes that stretched across the entire canvas of the night sky.  The eyes glared at them, swirling, the blue in them darkening like a bruise.  And I knew.  I had a surge of momentum rush through me like a lava flow.  I didn’t have a plot.  I didn’t have a direction.  But I had an inspiration, a need, to tell a story.  There was no silencing it.  It was time to write a sequel.

And as I sit here, eighteen months later, nearing the end of the middle portion of the novel, as the stretch run comes into view, just around the next bend, I still feel that enthusiasm, that desire, that need to make it all the way, to tell the story to the best of my ability straight through to the end.

aroundthebend

That, I believe, is the key to it all.  Whether you’re writing a novel or painting a picture, crafting a memoir or singing a song, you have to feel that same sense of wonder and excitement you once did, when you were eight years old.  Sometimes, I think, writing novels is nothing more than my way of remaining a kid, discovering new adventures to explore, new avenues to traverse, new enthusiasms to pursue.

senseofwonder

“May you live with hysteria,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “and out of it make fine stories. . . . may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days.  And out of that love, remake a world.”

*********************

Matt and I continued to dig throughout that summer.  Granted, our efforts waned as the calendar ticked on, as the start of the school year and third grade approached.  But we kept at it, telling each other scary stories the deeper we went, wondering if our next shovelfull of dirt would finally unearth a sightless, sharp-fanged monster.

It never did.  Try as we might, we never came face-to-face with a Merwk.

*********************

My parents still live in the old house, and, invariably, when I visit, I wander over to the side of the yard and walk along that narrow strip of grass.  The dirt hole has long since been filled in, of course.  But I always look, and remember.

The thing is, even to this day, I still believe in Merwks.

If you want to discover them, you just have to dig a little deeper.

diggingdirtholeafterlunch

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Worlds without End

Have you ever been somewhere, just some random place on a normal, nondescript day, when, all of a sudden, it hits you?  You blink, once, twice, three times, trying to reorient your senses.  You look more closely at your surroundings, inspecting every detail, hoping to prove–or disprove–your suspicions.  But no matter what you do, or where you look, or how you try to rationalize, the conclusion is inescapable.

catsdejavu

You know you’ve lived this moment before.

Deja vu is a phenomenon that science has never been able to explain with certainty.  It has tried, of course.  Many theories exist.  Perhaps memory itself is the root of the feeling.  Maybe, in moments of deja vu, we are remembering something similar, something partial–unable to make the necessary links to complete the picture.  Maybe there is a rational, scientific, perfectly logical explanation to all cases of deja vu.

memory

Or maybe the answers are not so cut-and-dried.  Certainly, to anyone who has felt a strong sense of “having been there before” when they, in actuality, never have, an explanation of faulty memory or a perception that somehow has gone momentarily haywire might not satisfy.

I know it has never satisfied me.  I have experienced deja vu several times, but there was one episode in particular that stands out from the rest.

I was in a store I had never visited.  I knew this to be true because I had never even been to the town in which this store was located.  It was an old-fashioned country store, in the hills of southern Vermont, the kind of place you might expect to see in a Norman Rockwell painting, with hardwood floors, exposed ceiling beams, and an antique cash register, behind which stood a bespectacled woman with snow-white hair and a welcoming smile.

countrystore

Immediately, upon entering, the feeling hit me, an almost out-of-body sensation.  In my mind’s eye, I saw myself–months ago, years ago?–walking down the aisles, browsing the merchandise, the dull thud of my shoes echoing against the sturdy wooden planks on the floor.  And when the woman behind the register waved, said, “Nice day, thanks for comin’ in,” I knew, knew, she had said those exact words to me before.

hardwoodfloor

I took a deep breath, my head swirling.  I nearly walked out, then and there.  It was too strange, too uncanny.  I paused, thought . . . was I mistaken?  After all, I had been to several country stores throughout Vermont.  Maybe I’d forgotten.  Maybe I had visited this town, this store.  But no.  I was sure of it.  This was the first time.

vermontmap

I walked down one of the aisles, knowing what I would see before I saw it.  I turned into the next aisle, still feeling as if I were somehow hovering above, unseen, a film projector in hand, recording the past, yet playing it simultaneously, the very fabric of time wrapping in and around itself, with me stranded in its spinning, whirling center.  How could this be?  How could my memory of an event that had never transpired be so specific, so actual?

timewrapping

I purchased a small item, checked out.  When the clerk rang me up, I knew what she was going to say.  “Come back and see us again soon.”  I nodded, thanked her, and quickly left.  I have never been back.

Or, perhaps, without knowing it, I have. . . .

********************

The Eye-Dancers, among other things, explores the concept of parallel worlds, of a layered reality, where universes lie, side by side, without any knowledge of each other.  And in these parallel worlds, we have other selves, other versions who go about their days and their lives, just as we do, running errands, picking up the mail, going to the dentist on rainy November mornings–most likely convinced that their universe is unique, the only one in all creation.

novemberrain

In The Eye-Dancers, after journeying through the void and while exploring the variant town of Colbyville, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are confronted with these issues head-on.  And while discussing their plight, Marc offers this explanation, from chapter 12 . . .

“Everything in existence fits together. . . . The smallest subatomic particle, the worst hurricane, the largest whale, the layers upon layers of reality.  All of it.  And what quantum mechanics tells us is–there are infinitely multiple versions of each of us.  Infinitely multiple versions of our earth.  You couldn’t even begin to count them all.”

whale

Such an idea is difficult for the other boys to grasp, and Marc does admit:  “Infinity will blow your mind if you let it.”  But, given their situation, it is something they think about often.

In chapter 13, in a quiet moment, Joe Marma ponders it all.  The text reads:

“He thought about what Kuslanski had said earlier–worlds upon worlds, onward through infinity.  Each of us scattered throughout the various realities like fallen leaves from the same tree.”

treeleaves

Indeed, might this be the real reason behind deja vu?  Could it be when we feel a strong sensation of having done something we haven’t done, seen something we haven’t seen . . . could it be that some small, hidden aspect of our subconscious mind is remembering an event one of our alternate selves experienced?

subconsciousmind

Marc Kuslanski considers just this in chapter 18 . . .

“It made him wonder.  What we call the subconscious–how much of it is derived from other worlds, other selves, spread out through time and space?  How much of who we are, what we know, is but a small piece, interlocking with an ever-expanding, layered puzzle of an infinity of existences?”

interlockingpuzzles

Far-fetched?  Outlandish?  Perhaps.  But impossible?  Nothing is impossible.  So, you see, maybe I had in fact visited that Rockwell-esque country store before, after all.  And maybe I have again since . . .

. . . in a world far, far away, beyond the sign posts of our reality.  And yet, so close, close enough to almost remember, to almost touch and see.

Close enough that, if we listen, really listen, we can occasionally hear its echoes speaking to us, like soft whispers in the dark.

wormhole

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Sense of Wonder

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite pastimes was playing Trivial Pursuit.  One Saturday night each month, my parents invited our neighbors to come over and play.  We would usually play two games, eat impossible amounts of food, laugh a lot, and compete.  Though the games were fun, each team wanted to win.

trivialpursuit

 

Some of the questions were easy, others remarkably obscure.  I tried to remember as much of the trivia as I could from game to game–I have always had a knack for holding on to useless information!

Many of the questions were run-of-the-mill.  Who won the Cy Young Award for the National League in 1984? (Rick Sutcliffe.)  Who was the 23rd president of the United States? (Benjamin Harrison.)  Who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1956? (Ingrid Bergman.)

ingridbergman

 

But others were mind-bending.  I recall one such question that asked what object weighed approximately 6.5 sextillion tons.  (The earth.)  What was the heaviest known substance in the universe, so heavy, in fact, that a teaspoon-full would weigh more than every person on the globe put together? ( A neutron star.)  Where did the lowest-ever recorded temperature on earth, -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit, occur in 1983?  (Vostok Station, Antarctica.)

antartica

 

Somewhere along the line, though, something struck me.  Here we were, playing a game, testing our knowledge on everything from baseball to cooking, from television history to astronomy and the mysteries of the universe.  And I realized–I was much more concerned with getting the questions answered correctly than I was absorbing the information and thinking about it.  Some of the facts I learned playing Trivial Pursuit were astonishing.  Didn’t they merit at least some pondering and reflection?

catthinking

 

*********************

In The Eye-Dancers, when we first meet Marc Kuslanski, he is a know-it-all, the class science wiz, the one Mitchell Brant, Ryan Swinton, and Joe Marma turn to when they are haunted by the “ghost girl” in their dreams.  Marc likes to figure things out.  He reduces complex puzzles to their simplest form, and logically and meticulously solves them.  His view of the universe has no room in it for the unexplained.

equations

 

In chapter 6 of the novel, the narrative describes Marc’s views . . .

“Few things irritated him more than mindless adherence to false beliefs, or unsubstantiated assertions of ‘magic’ or ‘miracles.’  Or ghosts.  There was no magic.  There were no miracles, and there were certainly no spirits who stalked you in dreams.  There was only truth, and fact.  Everything had a valid, natural explanation, a reason grounded within the existing laws of the universe.  Today’s mysteries were nothing more than tomorrow’s ongoing catalog of scientific advancement and discovery.”

scientificdiscovery

 

Over the course of The Eye-Dancers, Marc’s perspective will be tested, challenged, and, ultimately, ambushed.

Maybe we are not as rigid with our views as Marc Kuslanski is with his, but certainly we live in an age of scientific marvels, technology that, a generation ago, would have been relegated to the world of science fiction.  No matter how hard we try to guard against it, sometimes the sense of wonder escapes us.

technology

 

A century ago, very few people would have conceived of commercial jet aircraft that can transport you around the world in the span of hours.  If they had observed such a machine, they would have gaped, wonder-struck, perhaps terrified.  Today, we are so accustomed to jets, we may yawn as they fly overhead.

We are saturated with technological marvels, advancements that have shaped and altered society.  Just twenty years ago, the idea of a smartphone, and all the accoutrements that go along with it, would have seemed a fiction, something to be found in the pages of a novel or in the mind of a movie producer or screenwriter.

smartphones

 

Even in this age of computer chips and digital communication and information overload, however, there are still many phenomena that boggle the senses and stretch the limits of the mind.

For instance . . . nearly everyone has stepped outside on a crisp, clear night and looked up at the stars.  They dot the sky, one by one; there are so many it becomes dizzying to count them all.  And yet . . . what we see is only the slightest fraction of the whole, a microscopic drop, a solitary snowflake in a winter storm.

starsinsky

 

There are more estimated stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all of the earth’s beaches put together.  And when you look up at those stars, when you make an errant wish, a resolution, a promise to the vastness that surrounds you, you are observing, in effect, the equivalent of a mere handful of sand.

grainsofsand

 

At times, the stars appear so close, close enough to reach up and touch.  But their distance is nearly impossible to fathom.  They are so far away, in fact, that the light you are seeing, striking your eye from the depths of space, may have taken millions of years to reach you.  You are, in effect, looking into the distant past. . . .

lookinpast

 

Or consider the sun.  We see it every day (well, not quite in Vermont in winter!).  It is constant, our own personal star, the one thing we can count on through all the changes and winding pathways of life.  It is so there, so present–it’s easy to forget the power and energy it emits.

thesun

 

Imagine for a moment that a pinhead-sized piece of the sun were to be brought down to the surface of the earth.  A speck, a mote of sun-dust.  Yet powerful enough to kill you if you were to approach to within even ninety miles.

pinhead

 

I fear that, at the beginning of The Eye-Dancers, Marc Kuslanski would have simply shrugged at these facts.  He is so concerned with the inner workings of the wonders of the universe, the reasons behind them, the ratios and equations that prove or disprove them, he cannot appreciate the wonders themselves.

logic

 

I would like to think that, by novel’s end, he would be more ready to pause and look and ponder.  And more ready to admit that not everything can be explained by a mathematical formula or a cold, logical theory.  Some things, by their very nature, must remain a mystery, beyond the purview of a textbook definition.

mystery

 

Some things must be experienced, not explained.  Marveled at, not dissected.

Loved, and not taken apart and analyzed.

Several decades ago, astronomer Carl Sagan may have said it best . . .

“Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star.  All of the rocky or metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star.

“We are made of star stuff.”

starstuff

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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