New Voice: Mark Shulman on Scrawl

Mark Shulman is the first-time novelist of Scrawl (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, 2010)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

Tod Munn is a bully. He’s tough, but times are even tougher. The wimps have stopped coughing up their lunch money. The administration is cracking down. Then to make things worse, Tod and his friends get busted doing something bad. Something really bad.

Lucky Tod must spend his daily detention in a hot, empty room with Mrs. Woodrow, a no-nonsense guidance counselor. He doesn’t know why he’s there, but she does. Tod’s punishment: to scrawl his story in a beat-up notebook. He can be painfully funny and he can be brutally honest. But can Mrs. Woodrow help Tod stop playing the bad guy before he actually turns into one . . . for real?

Read Tod’s notebook for yourself.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

The lead character in Scrawl is a tough kid named Tod Munn. He arrived in my mind like a lightning bolt, and because I wasn’t a novelist, I had no use for him.

Tod showed up one afternoon when my friend, the author Alison James, included me in a story-writing exercise. It was an experience that bordered on mass hypnosis. A group of writers lay on the floor while Alison spoke softly about… well, I don’t exactly remember. I drifted into something like sleep. Then, suddenly, she sent each of us head-first into a place. Any place.

I ended up back in my old high school. The hall was the same, the floor was the same. A kid was getting beaten up. That was the same, too. But wait, something was wrong. I was the one on top, doing the hitting. That’s not right – I’m supposed to be the other guy.

How is it I’m breaking this kid’s glasses? Me? Who am I? And then, without warning, Alison told us to open our eyes and write.

So, in one five-minute epiphany, I had a location: my old high school. I had my character: he seemed to be an amalgam of several thugs and punks I encountered in my inner-city high school. And I had a few surreal paragraphs written, in which my fictional bully eloquently contemplates delivering a beating as if it were an artistic experience.

And that’s how I discovered Tod. Then I put away the notebook and went back to all the picture books, nonfiction, humor, and preschool books I’d been writing for years. As for getting to know him, I had no intention of doing that. What did I want with an oddball character like him? He’s not such a good fit for a picture book.

A few months later, I was speaking with my future editor, Neal Porter at Roaring Brook (pictured right). He had looked over all my various books and asked me, point blank, what I really wanted to be writing. And who among us doesn’t want to write a novel?

So write one, he said.

Well, Mr. Famous Editor, I don’t know how to write a novel.

Oh, he said, don’t worry. Just send me something.

That afternoon I went back to my office, and this character Tod, elbowed his way forward yet again. Just to shut Tod up, I typed up and mailed out the paragraphs I’d scribbled down in the sweat lodge. Then Neal asked me for a few more chapters. And a few more. And somehow he coaxed a book out of me. I guess that’s why he’s Neal Porter.

In those early character/discovery chapters, which make up the front of the book, I didn’t try to dissect Tod. I didn’t work out his home life or his goals or his fatal flaws. I didn’t try to get to know him at all. I tried to be him. Or, more accurately, I became him while I was writing.

I can’t explain how it happened, but it was a genuinely natural experience for a guy in his 40s to become an angry teenager. And I should point out that I wasn’t an angry teenager myself. I was a dork and a troublemaker, but I was upbeat about it.

Tod is a smart kid, as well as a smart-mouth. He’s got a good sense of humor. He’s an interesting kind of bad boy, full of bravado and opinions and he’s got an answer for everything. He likes to hang out in the library and read after school because he can’t afford his own books. He’s also an extortionist and a thief, but nobody’s perfect.

They say a writer should just follow his character around. That’s what I did. Because the book is in journal form, each entry is essentially a day’s worth of writing.

I sat down with a loose goal in mind: say, write a scene with Tod and his friend Rex. Okay. First they’re walking down the street after shoplifting (at the same corner deli my school’s basketball team robbed with the starter pistol, ski masks, and their personalized team jackets.) Now there’s a street preacher. Now Rex is in his face. Now it’s getting out of hand. And suddenly Rex was saying and doing things that blew me away as I was writing them. Tod takes a back seat and ends up as stunned as I was.

Growing up, there was a type of kid – skinny and street-smart with a nervous tic and menacing eyes. They look rural, but they thrive in the city. That’s Rex. Every time he showed up, the story darkened.

My other favorite character is Luz. She’s a classic scene-stealer. I only wanted her for a quick purpose – to be the artsy, elusive goth girl whose creation, a statue, becomes the touchstone for Tod’s awakening. I didn’t need the girl, I needed the statue. But when you meet Luz, you’ll understand how such a fireball could barge her way into the book and make herself indispensable from beginning to end. She is a work of art herself, and it was fascinating to watch her develop. I’ve never met anyone like her. Luz’s back-and-forths with Tod make for some of the snappiest dialog in the book.

And finally, Mrs. Woodrow, the guidance counselor, looms omnipresent. Her time on stage is relatively short, but she writes notes in Tod’s journal and that allows her to have her own voice. She’s also the person Tod’s writing to throughout. It was fun for me to write in the second person, and make the reader actually become her, through Tod’s eyes.

Each of the characters began as a type, more modal than human. In each one’s case, Neal encouraged me to have them do something counter to expectation. And that’s how they all evolved – from a type to an unpredictable human. It’s the characterizations, rather than a plot, that drives the first third of the book. Once the plot kicked in, the characters did a lot of improvising, and it stayed in the book.

One last word about the characters: It would be easy to typify this as a “boy book.” Yeah, there are confrontations and fights and nefarious behaviors. But it’s more than that.

It’s a realistic story of a person who is a boy. Also, Tod and his droogs may be in the center of the action, but they’re not the moral center of the story. That honor goes to a trio of women, all no-nonsense types: Luz, Mrs. Woodrow, and Tod’s steely mother. They do not let the smart, sarcastic, difficult boy get away with anything. They’re the guardrails. And try as he might, Tod does not dent them.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

On the whole, I don’t think it’s a good idea for adults who aren’t deep in the teenage culture to attempt building any bridges to modern technology, cutting-edge slang, or the newfangled social situations of our nation’s youth. It’s so gosh-darned tough to get jiggy with the hep lingo, or stay fresh with the gadgets, or 2 b edgy. That stuff changes all the time anyway.

I’m told Scrawl has a ring of reality to it. I think that partly comes from my determination not to date the book in any way. Or, rather, to set it in the present but not root it there.

Because I don’t have kids in high school (yet…though my eight-year-old thinks she is), my teen observations are limited to school visits, subway rides, and street chatter. The only teenagers I could draw from were the ones I knew from childhood. So that’s what I did.

And aren’t the most important situations and issues universal anyway?

While I was writing Scrawl, I kept my story simple and relatively timeless. A seemingly hopeless boy gets in trouble, and with some help from a teacher, the power of words and art ultimately show him a path. Like any writer, I cut patches from life to make my quilt, and that’s the point where I had to update the story. The more clever and heartless bullies of my day would have to sneak something humiliating into the school newspaper to broadcast their fun. Now there’s the internet, with its enormous, unrelenting reach, and I had to include it. Why draw a cruel cartoon when students can post a cruel photo? And when it comes to out-and-out intimidation, destroying something electronic lasts a lot longer than throwing a bookbag into the trees.

Once I had the story finished, I spent an entire draft removing every reference I could find that would date the book. Laptop became computer. MP3 player became music player. DVD player became video machine. Xbox became video game. Camcorder became video camera, and so on. Out went YouTube, Facebook, Google. (Remember Prodigy?) If there was even the hint of obsolescence – an icebox or a jalopy – I wrote around it. Now that the book is printed and in stores, I’m told there can be no more revisions. That’s too bad, because I found cable TV and a CD reference I couldn’t improve on.

And, on that note, one of my reasons for not wanting an image of Tod on the cover was because he’d eventually look to future readers like the denizens of disco look to us now.

How do you know what’s going to persevere and what’s a hula hoop? I can’t say, except it’s an instinct. Cole Porter had it. In his 1934 song “You’re the Top” he seems to have had a time machine to pick some of the everlasting references he used. There were countless entertainers available, but he chose Irving Berlin, Mae West, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire. Mickey Mouse was only seven years old and he got mentioned. Gandhi wouldn’t free India for another 14 years. Even Pepsodent is still on the shelves. In fact, the song itself is more dated than its references. But that’s another matter altogether.

Can you keep a secret? I want Scrawl to last. As long as possible. For a book in the second decade of the third millennium, “as long as possible” is usually three months. I know the odds, but still, I set my sights for the ultimate goal: being book-report-worthy. And to do that, I had to leave out the temporary stuff. I hope it worked.

Cynsational Notes

From Roaring Brook Press: “Mark Shulman has been a camp counselor, a radio announcer, a maitre d’ in a fancy restaurant, a New York City tour guide, and a creative advertising guy. He’s written many books about many things–sharks, storms, robots, palindromes, gorillas, dodo birds, “Star Wars,” Ben Franklin, how to hide stuff, how to voodoo your enemies, and how to make a video from start to finish. He’s written picture books for Oscar de la Hoya (the boxer) and Shamu (the whale). Mark is from Rochester and Buffalo, New York, but he has lived in New York City for so very long that he tawks like he’s from da Bronx. So do his kids. His wife Kara, a grade school reading specialist, has perfect diction.”

Where the Trouble Began: Scrawl by Mark Shulman from Get to the Point: a blog by Macmillan Publishing Group. Peek: “The literacy rate hovered at about 50%. The dropout rate was maybe 25%.”

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