New Voice: Cal Armistead on Being Henry David

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cal Armistead
is the first-time author Being Henry David
(Albert Whitman, 2013). From the promotional copy:

A teenage boy awakes from a deep sleep to find himself at Penn Station in New York City, with no memory of who he is, or where he came from. His only possession is a book at his side: Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. 

He decides to take the name Henry David, shortened to “Hank” by Jack, a street kid who befriends him. 

Shortly after they meet, Jack and Hank are involved in a crime with a kid-exploiting criminal called Magpie. 

Afraid to approach the authorities for help, Hank flees to Concord, Massachusetts, hoping that Walden–both the book and the location–will offer clues to his identity. That first night, Hank sleeps outdoors at the site of Thoreau’s cabin, then seeks shelter in the local high school and the public library. A tattooed, motorcycle-riding librarian/Thoreau historian named Thomas takes Hank under his wing, and guides him on the painful path to discovering his true identity. 

When Hank can run no further from the truth, will he confront the tragedy of his life or seek the ultimate escape?

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

The first thing I did to research my book was read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden from cover to cover. Well, (cough), that’s not 100% true. One of the roadblocks for me was that Thoreau’s old-fashioned, flowery language can be challenging to absorb, yet I wanted to familiarize myself with it because my main character, a lost kid with amnesia, finds the book and is deeply affected and inspired by it.

How did I overcome this? I listened to Walden several times as an audio book. As it turns out, that fancy 19th century writing is absolutely beautiful when it’s read aloud. (I highly recommend doing this!)

My greatest research coup was interviewing Richard Smith, a Thoreau interpreter/historian in Concord, Massachusetts, whose job is to lead tours at Walden Pond and visit schools all over the country posing as Thoreau.

In my book, I’d already written the character of Thomas, a Thoreau interpreter who helps my main character (Hank) find his way, but I needed to flesh him out and make sure he sounded legit.

One of the strangest coincidences of all time is that I’d created Thomas as a tattooed rebel/dedicated historian, and Richard Smith is this character, come to life. Richard has a lot of tattoos, including one of Thoreau on his left bicep (a detail I stole for Thomas), and was in a punk band when he was younger, just like Thomas.

Also, when I asked Richard where a present-day Thoreau might go to conduct his experiment of living off the grid in nature, he immediately pinpointed the wilds of Maine, specifically the area around Mount Katahdin. (Which Thoreau had hiked in the 1800s.) That insight from Richard led my character to Mount Katahdin at the end of the book, which felt perfect to me.

Walden Pond – Concord, Massachusetts

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view-first, second, third (or some alternating combination) featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

Laya & Jolie

I played around with both first and third-person point of view, but it was clear that telling the story in first person and in present tense served the story best. It’s about a teenage boy with amnesia, so everything that happens is immediate, happening to him right now.

I did experiment with third-person for a short while, but it made me feel too disconnected from the character, and the prose lost its spark and immediacy.

First person, present tense seems right so readers can be Hank, to experience his world (and his returning memory) right along with him.

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?

Writing about a kid who has amnesia presents a lot of challenges, but it also has its benefits. When Hank wakes up at Penn Station alone and without any belongings (except for Thoreau’s book, Walden), he has no cell phone or computer, so I don’t have to address much in the way of changing technologies. He does use a library computer to look for himself on the Missing and Exploited Children website, but the rest of the book is about a kid who’s completely unplugged, preferring nature to technology.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

I’ve approached the task of promoting my debut book by doing everything I can to educate myself on the subject. For example, earlier this year, I attended a conference (Grub Street in Boston, Muse in the Marketplace) that offered several seminars and panels on social media and book promotion. I sat front-and-center for all of them, taking copious notes. It was scary and humbling and completely overwhelming, but I learned a lot.

One of the first things I was told I had to do was establish a website and start writing a blog, so I did. Then I started a Twitter account, a Goodreads author page, and I started talking up my book on Facebook.

At this point, I’m also researching swag (the stuff you give away, like bookmarks), appearances at schools and libraries, and blog tours.

I’m still learning; it’s an ongoing process. Sometimes it’s really fun and sometimes, frankly, it feels a whole lot like work to someone like me who prefers creative pursuits to business ones.

As for support, I have something other authors do not: CMT, a.k.a. Cal’s Marketing Team. CMT is comprised of my husband (a mathematics/business guy), my daughter (an aspiring writer), and me.

I try to avoid the word “obsessed” when discussing my husband’s interest in marketing my book, because he hates that. However, I will share that he calls CMT business meetings on a regular basis, distributes agenda items, makes detailed charts and graphs, and scrawls out action items on a white board. And now that advanced reader copies are out, he uses on-line applications to check every day for any reference to my book that exists in the cyber-world. He tracks everything, and even does a few mysterious mathematical calculations that tell him…uh…something about the amount of attention my book is garnering.

It is at times like these that I tell him thanks, but please don’t try to explain this to my business-adverse, math-challenged brain. Promoting my book has become my husband’s newest, most favorite hobby and I truly love that we can share this experience together. Now we’ll see how this dedication translates to sales after the book is actually released.

If it works well, I’ll suggest to my fellow writers that they establish marketing teams of their own. And if my team is especially successful, maybe I’ll rent them out. For a fee.