Interview With The Author
Why did you decide to write a story about bullying?
I didn’t. I wanted to write a story for teenagers that didn’t involve zombies or vampires, or rely for its narrative tension on some grim future where all the rules are turned upside down. I wanted to take an unlikely “hero” and pit him against challenges that a teenager might actually encounter today. Unfortunately, bullying very much meets that definition.
So Cooper is like a substitute zombie?
No. Cooper is a bully. That’s my point. Sam is not out there dueling with some other worldly fictional force. He faces the very real problem of another kid out to make his life hell. And that’s not Sam’s only problem. There’s also the strain of living under the thumb of an egomaniac father, the heartache of an unattainable crush, and his first experience with the finality of death. These all become elements of Sam’s story, along with elements from the plus side of his world: true friendship, help from unexpected places, and discovery within himself of unknown strengths and a higher purpose.
A higher purpose?
Well, maybe that’s overstating it. Let’s just say Sam reaches the point where he embraces the idea that everything is not always about him. That’s a pretty big breakthrough in growing up.
Okay, but bullying is such a hot topic today.
Bullying isn’t a “hot topic.” Bullying is a serious problem that affects between one-quarter and one-third of US students in middle school and high school. It can lead to a wide range of problems including anxiety, depression, a drop in school performance and emotional trauma that can carry into adulthood. At its most tragic, bullying can contribute to suicide related behavior, including suicide, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide. Most bullying doesn’t rise to this level, but it can be harmful in whatever form it takes, from a one-time tough guy act to an escalating hate storm carried on by a peer group against one of its members.
Do you think Cooper’s behavior rises to the level of bullying? Could this be more a case of “boys being boys”?
If there is a distinction between “bullying” and “boys being boys,” I doubt it would mean much to the person on the receiving end. That slope gets slippery pretty fast. Maybe a good rule of thumb is that any behavior intended to ridicule, humiliate or cause emotional pain to a helpless individual is bad, period.
In that case, don’t you give Cooper a break at the end? It seems like he’s never held accountable for his behavior.
That’s a tough one, but I think a lot of bullying takes place without adult awareness, much less intervention—which is what being “held accountable” probably means to most people. In addition to Cooper’s treatment of Sam, there is his behavior toward Allie in the woods. We don’t know exactly what Cooper did, but we know from Allie’s reaction that she thought it was wrong.
Other than some form of karmic justice, like Cooper’s fancy blonde hair falling out, what else would it mean for him to be “held accountable” other than an adult cracking down on him? Plus, I suppose you could look at his mother’s death before the story opens as a form of karmic justice in advance. As Sam says to Doc the night before the Wellness Ride, the fact that Cooper’s mother died doesn’t excuse Cooper’s behavior, but it does explain it.
It was important for the story I was telling to have Sam resolve the conflict with Cooper on his own. He tells Doc about his “nemesis,” but clearly to get it off his chest, not in the hope that Doc is going to set Cooper straight. In the end, Sam and Cooper arrive at an understanding without any direct adult involvement. Not in so many words, Sam, in effect, forgives Cooper and Cooper, in effect, apologizes to Sam. Cooper doesn’t get punished, but no punishment is necessary.
This doesn’t mean I don’t think adults should intervene. Exactly the opposite. I think adults are absolutely obligated to get involved any time bullying comes to their attention. How they should intervene and to what degree, I leave to expert advice in each particular situation. From personal experience, however, I can say that even a small amount of adult intervention has the potential to make a big difference.
You were bullied?
Actually, I’m ashamed to admit that for a couple days in ninth grade I was on the bullying side of the equation. For reasons that must have made some warped sense at the time, two buddies and I decided to target a classmate with a campaign of name calling. I could try to defend myself by saying I wasn’t the instigator, but I doubt the classmate would have cared much about that distinction. I really don’t know why we did it. I guess in some twisted way we thought it made us cool, which is one of the prime motivators behind bullying today.
At one point we carried the name calling into English class. Our teacher, Mr. Anton Schwarzmueller, picked up on it and called us out, right there in front of the whole class. “Who do you think you are?” he asked, in a quiet tone that was 100 times more powerful than a shout.
I don’t remember anything else he said, but those six words have stuck with me all my life. It was a good old-fashioned public shaming, which was exactly what we needed. I honestly don’t know about the other guys, but I was cured instantly. I saw in the Buffalo News about a year ago that Mr. Schwarzmueller had died. I wish I had thanked him for calling me out that day. It was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in school. I really don’t think I was on track to become a chronic bully, but that incident boosted my empathy.
Did you have that experience in mind when you wrote this book?
No. Not consciously, anyhow. It still crosses my mind now and then, if something I read or see jogs it loose, but it certainly wasn’t a model for anything to do with Sam and Cooper. It’s just there in the back of my mind like a hundred million other things when I sit down to write.
So if Gooder than Gold isn’t about bullying, per se, what would you say it is about?
It’s one of the oldest stories in the world, what’s known in literary circles as a bildungsroman, or, in everyday language (of which I’m a fan), a coming of age story. At the beginning, Sam’s father tells Sam to “reinvent himself.” It takes Sam meeting, enduring and overcoming a series of hardships and humiliations to realize his father has it all wrong. Sam doesn’t need not to reinvent himself; he needs to be himself. How Sam comes to this realization is the essence of the story.
And when and how does Sam come to this understanding?
Gradually, over the course of the book. I think the first glimmer is when his buddies tell him he’s the “heart and soul” of their little group. That knowledge gives him some encouragement when he badly needs it. This is right after his father tells Sam he’s not “normal,” and now his friends assure him he’s not only normal, he has something valuable to offer.
The road trip to Cleveland with his father is a clear turning point. Observing his father preach his “Good as Gold” gospel to some newly unemployed workers, Sam comes to see that the great Jack Gold is at heart a con man who preys on people’s hopes and dreams. Sam has spent his whole life feeling that he could never live up to his father’s perfect model, and now he realizes the model is an empty shell. Sam wouldn’t put in so many words, but after this discovery he knows he is free to find or invent a new model for how to live.
Another turning point comes the night before the Wellness Ride, when Sam’s mother reveals the fate of the young Frisbee thrower, Grace. That conversation, the news itself and also the way it affects his mother, is critical in bringing Sam to a new understanding of the world—what I suggested earlier was a higher purpose. Sam decides to ride the kiddy ride (the Goober) the next morning, and doesn’t care what his father or anybody else thinks about it. He knows the day is not about him. It’s about a little girl who had dreamed about riding the Goober and, now that she forever can’t, he’s going to do it for her.
There are others. Certainly, as the story progresses, Sam’s interactions with Cooper begin to change, and, of course, there are Sam’s pitiful attempts to be Allie’s protector.
What interactions with Cooper do you mean?
There are a couple scenes where the dynamic between them starts to shift. I don’t mean that Sam starts to gain power over Cooper after the opposite has been true since the beginning. I mean Sam starts to develop immunity against Cooper’s abuse. Cooper never stops trying to make Sam hurt, but as the story goes his jabs begin to have less sting.
We first see this in the scene where Sam saves Cooper from being crushed by the collapsing pool house. Cooper still acts tough and tries to turn the facts around by telling Allie and her friends that Sam was scared, but Sam knows the truth and knows that Cooper does, too. What Sam doesn’t realize is this shift makes Cooper all the more dangerous. Going forward Cooper knows that if he wants to restore the original balance, he will have to find new ways to hurt Sam.
Later, Cooper thinks he has found the ultimate weapon against Sam—that is, making Sam relive the guilt and shame he feels for causing Chinook’s death. The problem is, Cooper gets the details wrong, which completely blunts Sam’s pain. Cooper says Chinook was hit by a dump truck, but he wasn’t. He was killed by a snow plow. And then Cooper tries to make Sam cringe by suggesting he needed a shovel to pick up Chinook’s broken pieces, where in reality Chinook looked untouched after the accident, with only a single drop of blood on his thick winter coat.
Without those details, Cooper’s version has no bite. It’s just a generic story about any dog and any accident. Sam has already felt all the pain he could ever feel from that terrible afternoon. From that point there is nothing more Cooper can say to hurt Sam.
Is that why Cooper cuts the valves off Sam’s tires at the end? Because words can no longer hurt?
Slashing Sam’s tires is Cooper’s way of trying to hurt Sam one last time. He does this just after Sam reveals that he knows Cooper’s mother has died. Cooper can’t stand the idea of Sam trying to make him feel better. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Sam’s supposed to fear Cooper, not pity him. Going after the bike is Cooper’s last chance to put himself back on top.
At one point, Sam is prepared to use violence against Cooper. Do you think this is ever the right response?
No, and double no when we’re talking about a stun gun like device capable of turning a healthy full-size dog into a quivering lump out jelly. Sam feels like a loser and is ashamed he couldn’t protect Allie when she needed it. His attempt at violence is desperate, ill-conceived and, as it turns out when it fails, yet another reason for him to feel humiliated. In the end violence doesn’t work. He finds a way to solve his problems by sticking to who he is.
You mentioned fear earlier. That seems to be a big part of what drives Sam’s decisions, fear of his father and fear of Cooper.
Sam’s biggest fear, as with most kids, is not fitting in. The notion that he might not be normal petrifies him. He can see and hear his father and Cooper. They’re real. The fear of being different is much hazier. It looms as a dark cloud over everything.
As a “coming of age” story, does Gooder than Gold reflect any elements from your own childhood?
I was young once, and I was a boy. That’s pretty much it. Start with my father, the only thing he has in common with Jack Gold is a taste for hot sauce, and even then nowhere close to the same degree (no pun intended) as Jack’s. My father is a good man and was and is a great father who supports, encourages and enjoys his children. Also, unlike Sam, I was a good athlete growing up, with better than decent “hand-eye” coordination.
So, no, there is nothing “based” upon my life, per se, but there are all kinds of things dragged over and put to new purpose. The whole idea of The Wellness Ride, for instance, is based upon the very real Ride for Roswell, a first-class annual event that raises money for a world renowned center in Buffalo named Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Like the Wellness Ride, the Ride for Roswell is very much not meant to be a race. It has routes of different lengths to accommodate riders of varying ability, and 90 percent of the people know the main point is to form a community and raise money for a good cause.
I’ve done the ride about 15 times, including several times with my daughter on the back end of a tandem. She was little the first time, like seven or eight and more or less along for the ride. I remember riding one of the shorter routes with her and getting overrun at the end by hotshots on the 100-mile ride who thought they were winning the Tour de France. There were some older folks near us, cancer survivors just thrilled to be on a bike and not in the hospital, and these guys came flying up from behind screaming for the old people to get out of the way.
I’m a semi-serious rider myself, but I know when to tone it back. It really bugged me. When I was first trying to figure out Jack Gold’s character, I made him the worst of those riders. Some people just don’t get it.
You rode a tandem bike with your daughter? Is that where you got the idea for Doc’s tandem?
Not really. When I was writing the scene where Sam first meets Doc, the homemade tandem in the garage just popped up as a way to help define who Doc is. Later I looked back and thought, “Hey, I can use that in the ride,” which at first wasn’t such a central part of the story.
That’s one of the most rewarding aspects of writing. When you do the work of building up a separate little world, you begin to see connections in that world you didn’t notice at first. To tell the truth, even after I decided to use the tandem in the Wellness Ride, I didn’t know for a long time who was going to ride it or what would happen at the finish.
Dogs obviously play an important role in the book. Did you grow up with dogs? Do you own one now?
We didn’t have dogs when I was young. I guess five kids was enough. But for most of the last 25 years I’ve had dogs with my wife and daughter. Snow dogs, which is another connection I guess you could say between my life and Sam’s. We both love snow dogs and we both had one die on us in memorable fashion.
What do you mean? Was your dog hit by a snow plow?
No. The reality isn’t near as spectacular as Chinook running full speed into the path of a snow plow, but it’s something I’ll never forget. We had a Samoyed named Sugar, which we got as a puppy when our daughter was three or four. Samoyeds are beautiful dogs, pure white except for their brown eyes and black noses, with a thick plush coat bred to keep them warm in the harsh winters of Siberia where the breed originated.
We’re not Siberia here in Buffalo, but as everybody knows we do get our fair share of snow. Sugar and I both loved the cold and spent hours trucking through the snow, me in snowshoes or cross country skis, she in the equipment nature gave her. She was a perfect snow-going machine, with a dense three-layer coat, fur on the pads of her feet, and a fluffy but sturdy tail that doubled as a nose warmer when she curled up in the snow to take a rest.
When she was seven—still pretty young for her breed and in good shape as far as I could tell—I took her out for an early ski on a crystal morning of clean new snow, blue sky and dazzling sun. After maybe half an hour or so, we reached an open field bordered by large evergreens. As I started off across the field, she stayed in the trees to investigate further. When I looked back a few minutes later, she had left the trees and started to sprint after me. I’ll never forget the sight of her racing through the snow, a beautiful instance of a living being fully embracing the one thing it was born to do. It was like watching a definition of what it means to be alive.
I started back up skiing, expecting any minute for Sugar to catch up and pass me. When more time passed than I thought she needed, I looked back and saw her lying in the snow, maybe 100 yards or so away. I hustled back as fast as I could, and reached her just in time to take my glove off and place my hand on her chest as she exhaled her last breath. Her eyes were open, but who knows if she saw me in that last instant. A heart attack, I guess, or a stroke. There’s no way to know. I could see the marks in the snow where she had stumbled mid-stride and done a complete forward flip from her momentum before landing on her side, from all outward appearances just lying down for a nap.
It was an otherworldly moment. The sun still shined, the snow still glistened, but the beautiful animal who moments earlier had been so gloriously alive was now growing stiff in the cold. I left my skis and poles and carried her in my arms to the car, settling her in the back seat, before walking back to retrieve my gear and driving home. It was still early. I woke my daughter and put her in bed with my wife and told them the news together. They didn’t believe me. I barely believed me, and I was still sweating from the effort of carrying Sugar though the snow. I gave them the chance to come down and see her one last time, but neither wanted to.
It was a Sunday, so I took her to an emergency clinic and arranged for cremation. She’s still in the house in a tasteful maple box I keep meaning to bury under a newly planted tree. I missed another chance this past spring when I planted a London plane tree in our front yard.
Did you draw on that experience to write about Sam and Chinook?
If nothing else, when I decided to give Sam a dog, there was no chance it was going to be a toy Yorkie (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). But when I decided on a snow dog, it wasn’t like I thought, “Now I have to kill him off because of what happened to Sugar.”
It was only after I realized that for the story to work, Chinook would have to be dead before it begins that I started to think about how he might have died. The experience with Sugar was so vivid, it’s natural some elements would creep in. Maybe the biggest thing the two stories have in common is that, seconds before they die, both dogs are running through the snow in complete harmony with their natures.
As I bent down to pick Sugar up, I remember thinking to myself—I might even have said it out loud—”Is this really happening?” For Sam, the shock had to be 100 times stronger. He had witnessed the impact of the plow blade slamming his dog from mere feet away, and had himself come within a half-second of getting crushed to death.
Sam becomes friends with people old enough to be his great grandparents. Do you think it was realistic for Sam to become friends with Doc and his old teacher colleagues?
I wish. I don’t think kids have much interaction with older people, except their own grandparents—who aren’t anywhere as old as Doc. It’s too bad, a loss for both generations.
I remember growing up in Niagara Falls and having an old couple up the street named the Tulinoffs. I was like six, so anything over 50 seemed ancient, but these folks were legitimately old. The husband had fought in the Russian revolution (the White Army I learned later) and had a story about hiding in a hay cart, while an enemy soldier prodded the hay unsuccessfully for him with a pitchfork. Imagine hearing that as a six year old from the person who had actually lived the story!
The Tulinoffs befriended me and my siblings, and it became natural to stop there on our way from school. One time they surprised us with green eggs and ham! Another time Mr. Tulinoff made me a butterfly net and showed me how to open and close it by flicking my wrists. There was a little field across from our house and for a good part of one summer I chased down monarchs and a variety of white, yellow and blue moths, which I would put in jars to show him before setting them free.
When we moved to Buffalo, my brothers and I cut lawns and shoveled snow all around the neighborhood, which put us in contact with a number of old timers we wouldn’t otherwise know. I remember an old man named Mr. Murphy who lived alone in a tidy little house with a curve in front like the bow of a ship. I was cutting his lawn one time and it started to rain. He invited me in to wait out the downpour, and we sat on his screened porch drinking tea. He didn’t say much, and didn’t seem to expect me to either. We just drank our tea and listened to the rain come down.
When the rain slowed to barely a sprinkle he turned to me and said, “It’s mystifying,” smiling just enough to make sure I got the pun. It might sound like a weird thing to remember all these years later, but that moment, waiting out the rain together and him slyly sharing his pun is a moment of human connection between generations that I took to be natural. I don’t think kids nowadays have those connections, and I think it’s too bad. If all goes according to plan, we’ll all be old someday and it won’t hurt to have some sense of it in advance.
Why did you think it was important for Sam to have this connection with Doc?
Doc is the first one to see that Sam is tying himself in knots trying to be someone he’s not. Without pushing, he offers Sam a refuge where he can talk or listen, but doesn’t have to do either. It takes Sam a while to see Doc as a real human being, not a caricature of a bumbling old man. In time he grows to understand that Doc has experiences and a perspective that can help him sort out his own problems, although this understanding doesn’t come all at once.
Ultimately, what allows Sam to learn from Doc is that Doc never forces his ideas on Sam. He knows Sam is wound pretty tight from dealing with his “nemesis” and his father. Doc doesn’t press, but when events transpire to make Sam more open to listening, Doc is ready.
You started by saying that you didn’t want to write about a “grim future world where all the rules are turned upside down.” Why is that?
Because I’m not too bright? Why else would I not try to grab a slice of the huge market these days for dystopian fantasy series? Two reasons. One, I’m depressed enough about the state of the world and don’t need to steep myself for months at a time in an imagined failed future civilization, and, two, those kind of stories didn’t interest me growing up, and I think there are readers out there now who feel the same.
What kind of books did you read when you were young?
It’s not that I didn’t read any fantasies. Starting around sixth grade, I devoured all the Tolkien I could find, including lesser known works like the Silmarillion and Leaf by Niggle, but I never developed any interest for the genre outside of that. From early on I preferred stories that seemed like they take could place in the real world, which was more than fascinating, confusing, exhilarating and scary enough for me just the way it was.
Young adult wasn’t such an identified genre then, so I just read whatever I could put my hands on, and we had books all over the house. Also, there didn’t seem to be such an emphasis on having a young protagonist for young readers, or if the story was about a young person, it didn’t mean it was necessarily intended only for a young audience.
When we were in elementary school, my brothers and I plowed through the Hardy Boys series and all the Tarzan books, and after that there were the sailing yarns of Horatio Hornblower and the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper.
Somehow when I was about 12 or 13, I got hold of The Godfather. If you’ve seen the movie, you know there are fairly graphic sex scenes and it doesn’t skimp on swearing and violence. I didn’t understand half what I was reading, but I followed the story pretty well, and, as we know from our country’s long love affair with the movie, it’s a darn good one. I seem to have survived my encounter with the most adult of adult themes without permanent trauma. I think.
Speaking of adult themes, Sam and a few of your other characters swear, including the F-bomb. What was your thinking there?
There is an ongoing debate over whether characters in young adult books should be allowed to swear. I think they should, as long as the story calls for it and the swearing is presented in a way that is consistent with how the characters otherwise behave. Gratuitous swearing, no, but then again, good writing shouldn’t contain gratuitous words of any description anyhow.
For anyone who thinks we should withhold certain words to protect young ears, the simple truth is that kids today start swearing in middle school if not before. Any kids who don’t hear it often enough from their peers. Swearing is part of their world, same as it is for adults. The difference between adult and teenage swearing is that teenagers are still trying it out. When Sam uses the F-bomb with his sister early in the book, it’s lame and he knows it.
Sam’s mother is so opposite his father. It’s almost impossible to believe they ever got together to begin with.
Happens all the time in real life. Actually, I thought this might be a hang up, and worked up a whole back story of how they got together in high school, she the studious one in front and he cracking jokes with his buddies in the back row. Then I had Sam muse about how old he was compared to the number of years his parents had been married, but all that got in the way of the story, and I let it go. Whatever flaws Jack Gold has in his character, he’s also a charmer. Sam’s mother wouldn’t be the first intelligent woman in the world to mistake ambition and ego for energy and wit.
Even after Sam bangs himself up falling off his bike and almost gets arrested, his mother remains hands off in her parenting. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
Yes. She remains hands off, but at the same time it’s clear that she’s paying close attention and will step in if she senses any real danger. She understands what makes Sam tick, and she knows it’s important for him to learn to solve his problems on his own. She shows support by making sure Sam knows she trusts him and is there if he needs her.
It seems for every action scene where something big and obvious take place to move the story along, there is a scene where something just as important but much more subtle takes place in a quiet scene.
That’s just me. I think most of life takes place in the quiet moments. The big dramatic moments, there really aren’t that many, and if you spend too much time waiting for them you might miss a good part of your own life. If you look at some of the most pivotal scenes in the book, there’s not a lot of screaming and action, no explosions, but even so there might be something going on down below that is having a big impact on a person.
Take the scene where Sam goes next door to borrow eggs from the Radford’s for his father. He is ashamed that he didn’t protect Allie from Cooper the night before, and then followed that up by making a fool of himself trying to jolt Allie’s uncle with the shock phone in the morning. He could just grab the eggs and bolt, but he stands on the porch and reaches deep within himself to cut through his shame and tell Allie he’s sorry for what she went through.
It’s one of the hardest things he’s ever done in his life, and what is her reaction? She tells him to mind his own business. Crushed, Sam stumbles off the stoop and lies on the wet grass with the broken eggs oozing through his fingers, wishing he could just keep falling through to the center of the earth.
Big deal right? A guy falls off a porch and breaks some eggs. But if you know how much Sam’s heart aches at that moment, you will share his sudden burst of joy when she calls after him across the lawn and says, “Thank you.”
You seem to leave the decision open as to whether Sam is going to go along with his father’s request to change Baby’s name to Bailey. Why?
Sam has been through a lot of changes, but he is still a work in progress. When his father asks him to change the dog’s name it’s almost like a déjà vu moment for Sam, another instance of his father telling him what to do. When Sam says, “We’ll see,” he is opening the door to being able to stand up to his father. Opening the door is one thing, however. Stepping through is another. I wanted the reader to decide whether Sam takes this final step.