The Big Idea: Arthur Salm
This is a Big Idea whose author I have a great deal of pleasure introducing to you, because the debut novelist you are about to meet, Arthur Salm, is a dear friend of mine — the book editor at the San Diego Tribune back when I was an but an intern there, more than two decades ago (the paper later merged to become the San Diego Union Tribune, where Arthur continued in that role). After years of reviewing and talking about books, Arthur’s gone to the other side and written Anyway*, a coming-of-age tale that’s getting some lovely reviews (Publishers Weekly calls it “sweetly comic”) and aims to capture the essence of being twelve. How to do that? By treating the main character Max — and the readers — in a certain way. Here’s Arthur to explain.
My Big Idea started out as No Idea At All.
Four years ago I left my job as Books editor and columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune and sat down to write a novel. I hadn’t the vaguest wisp of a story in mind, but I had the tone down, I tell you, down: This was to be an antic, dark comedy, because … well, it sounded like fun.
Problem was, I’d never written fiction. I had, in fact, spent 20+ years trying not to write fiction, what with being a journalist and all. So on Day One, after arranging the cat on my lap (she’s still there, or rather, here), I thought I’d take a test drive: a short story for my then 12-year-old daughter. Just to see if I could make stuff up.
Right away Max, my 12,-almost-13-year-old narrator, started coming up with asides and tangential comments. I remembered that when I reviewed David Foster Wallace’s essay collection “Consider the Lobster” I peppered the piece with 30 of what I hoped were fun and funny footnotes (Wallace was, of course, Master of the Footnote) and that it was the best time I ever had writing anything. So I started putting Max’s meanderings into footnotes.
After about four hours I leaned back in my chair and screamed at the ceiling, “NO! I do not want to write a *%^#$&^ children’s book!”
Because I don’t read, and have never read, children’s books. I don’t collect stamps or listen to opera or watch football, either. Nothing against any of them. Just not interested.
But now I was writing a children’s book … without a clue as to what children’s books are “like.” Which is when I got what I hope will pass for a Big Idea. Or a Large-ish Idea, at least.
Here we have to detour back to the newspaper biz. People were always asking me, “Is it true that newspapers are written on a sixth-grade level?” It’s one of those modern myths (e.g., “Everyone should drink eight glasses of water a day”) that make no sense if you think about them for two minutes, but are generally accepted because most people don’t think about anything for two minutes. Anyway, one of the preposterous notions attendant to the “sixth-grade level” myth is that reporters are able to calibrate their prose to the reading level of the average American 11-year-old. (Copy editor kicks story back to reporter: “You’ve got two eighth-grade vocab words in the fourth graf, and the sentence structure in the lede is fifth-grade at best.”)
Not having a clue, then, as to how to downshift my writing into middle-school gear, I made up my mind not to. They’ll get it, I told myself. Just write the story. The only concessions I made were 1) no super-complex sentences that wander off into a maze of subordinate and sub-subordinate clauses, because eighth-graders just don’t sound like that; and 2) keep an eye on the vocabulary: no “plangent” or “purblind” or “peripatetic.” Aside from that, just write the story.
Because what “Anyway*” is about, really – as much as a book is “about” anything, another argument altogether – is that fleeting netherworld in which one is neither a little kid nor a teenager, but a (semi)-independent being balanced precariously, giddily, gloriously in between. It’s about that feeling: Max is intensely aware of (and ecstatic about) no longer being a little kid, and he knows that the social and chemical assault of teen-hood lies dead ahead. So he’s fiddling with his identity … and when he goes to a week-long summer family camp, he sees a chance to re-invent himself. Nobody there knows him. He can be anything, be anybody he wants to be.
That kind of a story, that kind of sensibility, can’t be conveyed by writing down to what we imagine to be a kid’s level of sophistication. It’s grown-up stuff, if you will. And here’s my Big (Large-ish!) Idea: This is exactly, but exactly the point in life when people start to GET stuff. They’ll get it. Twelve, 11-, 10-year-olds will get it.
And so, I hope, will 20-, 31- …maybe even 62-year-olds.