Matt, a white quarterback from Montreal, Quebec, flies to France (without his parents’ permission) to play football and escape family pressure. Freeman, a black football player from San Antonio, Texas, is in Paris on a school trip when he hears about a team playing American football in a rough, low-income suburb called Villeneuve-La-Grande.
Matt and Free join the Diables Rouges and make friends with the other players, who come from many different ethnic groups. Racial tension erupts into riots in Villeneuve when some of their Muslim teammates get in trouble with the police, and Matt and Free have to decide whether to get involved and face the very real risk of arrest and violence.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
As a young man, trying to figure out how to become a writer, I espoused the whole Hemingway “write what you know” thing. You know, you go out and have adventures that you can mine for material, all that. And so I did. I worked development in the Ivory Coast and hitchhiked from Brazil to the US — things like that. My base of operations, like Hemingway’s, was Paris, and the way I supported myself was by playing American football. I’d grown up in Texas and had played in college and I missed football.
Europe was still a distant land in 1987, strange
and exotic and remote from the United States. American Football in Europe was unexpected and particular. It’s a club sport there, and semi-pro. Only the Americans (three per team, by rule) get paid. Where the average Frenchman is usually thought to be about as big as a pubescent girl, many of the players in the premier division have good size. They had good soccer speed, but that’s different from football speed. So here were these grown men playing a game for boys with the grace of dump trucks and the temperaments of chain saws. And there I was, twenty-two years old, just a year out of college and with this, the only prospect of me ever playing again.
For them, American models displayed the
how-to of anti-establishment behavior. Many wore replica letterman’s jackets and baseball caps, a rebuff of France’s culture of fashion. Two players restored and drove big 1950s American cars. They all greeted each other with soul handshakes, and one player once explained to me that seeing the blaxploitation classic Shaft as young men had profoundly marked them. They associated American football, an in-your-face, violent game, with African-American culture, and they embraced it as another way to distinguish themselves from the larger French society.
Eventually, the two things — the attempt to become a writer and my experiences playing football in La Courneuve — began to merge.
When I came back to the US and enrolled in the MFA program at UMass, I knew I wanted to write about my five years abroad. Away Running began there. It was a long road after that, but it started there.
As an unagented author, how did you identify your editor and connect the manuscript with the publishing house?
Away Running’s journey to print was long, serpentine, and frankly, at times kind of odious. Every author has at least one story about the difficulty and pain of becoming a published writer. Ours — my coauthor’s and mine — had tinges of racism to it.
The book began as a dual-voiced memoir chronicling Luc Bouchard’s and my experiences playing American football in the working-class and poor, immigrant communities surrounding Paris, a new slant on the long tradition of North American expatriate narratives. The manuscript circulated among New York publishing houses. One editor commented that she thought the story would make a great movie. But none accepted the book.
It was my agent at the time, a friend and former student, Paul Rodeen, who suggested that Luc and I transform it into a young adult novel. He told us about the lack of books aimed at what the mainstream publishing industry dismissively calls “reluctant readers” — that is, boys. I did a little research and realized that not just boys tend to be overlooked by mainstream publishing, but children of color, broadly, and particularly boys of color. I wrote an essay, “Invisible Boys,” that appeared in American Book Review in July 2013, to call attention to this ongoing and shameful legacy, and Luc and I decided to re-imagine Away Running as YA.
Penguin initially bought the idea based on a written proposal but later orphaned the project when Luc and I refused to cut the black point-of-view character and tell the story uniquely from the white boy’s perspective. The black character, Freeman, is a working-class kid from San Antonio, a high school football player who excels in school as well as on the field. But in trying to deal with his father’s death in Iraq, he resents his Muslim teammates in his new community outside Paris (a place like La Courneuve). Though he doesn’t realize it yet, he views those brown boys in ways that mirror how he was treated as a black boy growing up in the Texas.
Our editor at Penguin, who was white, disparaged our characterization of the black boy. He called the complex aspects of his personality “ugly” and “unattractive,” and referred to his voice as “slang.” He found it unbelievable that a boy who spoke this way with his friends (though the character code-switches to standard English with his mother and teachers) could master French sufficiently to function in France. (That the main white character can speak both English and French raised no red flags for him.)
After Penguin orphaned us, the other mainstream houses, maybe predictably, also passed on the manuscript.
From its founding in 1984, Orca Book Publishers, out of Vancouver, has been committed to diversity and inclusiveness and has pioneered publishing books for so-called “reluctant readers.” Last year, it released a book on LGBT history for young readers, Pride:Celebrating Diversity & Community. Paul and I had parted ways professionally (though we are still friends!), so I queried Orca myself, and they took an immediate interest in Away Running. They proved to be a great fit. Our editor, Sarah Harvey, was great, asking the right questions, pointing us in good directions to find solutions to the manuscript’s problems.
What model books were most useful to you and how?
I’d never read YA before writing Away Running, not even when I was a YA myself. As strange as it may sound, the book that may have most influenced me in writing Away Running is North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent (William Morrow, 1973), this 1970s roman à clef about the Dallas Cowboys of the 1960s. I read it when I was fifteen, traveling overnight on a Greyhound from West Texas to Kansas City, where my father lived, and it surprised me in a way that no book had surprised me before. The movie had just come out and all my teammates and I had found a way to see it, even though it was rated R. I had stumbled upon a copy of the paperback at a garage sale with my mom not long after seeing it and thought it might make the fifteen-hour bus ride go by faster.
|David on a YA panel at the Texas Book Festival|
Where the movie depicts this rowdy and raunchy bacchanalia about pro football, the book is just as much a telling study of post-sixties America. Like every other high school player, I dreamed of going pro, and like every single Texan, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Dallas Cowboys. They may have been America’s Team but Texans venerated them as downright saintly. But the book takes an unflinching look at the racism and misogyny at the heart of the team and the society that reveres it. Football creates and rewards conformity, but the book tells the story of this free-thinking individualist caught up in football culture because he loves to play the game.
North Dallas Forty was one of the few books I took with me when I went abroad at twenty-two, and in certain moods, I’d always return to it. I saw something of myself in the main character, and I came to recognize my teammates on the Flash as nonconforming fellow travellers.
My Flash teammates were misfits but proud, loyal, and community-oriented. La Courneuve, La Courneuve had a mairie rouge, a “red” city council, with its mayor and other elected officials members of France’s Communist Party. Most poor municipalities in suburban Paris did (and do). At its origins, the Flash was a collaboration between the township and the team intended to provide an outlet for local young men other than street-life. Two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, none of my teammates saw any irony in the fact that their township was sponsoring their American football club.
So when I started thinking about writing about the Flash, aspects of North Dallas Forty echoed in my imagination. Luc and I wanted Away Running to be more about the society the characters live in than about the sport they play. But we also recognized that we were writing about boys and girls, primarily for boys and girls. Since our book had not started out as YA, we spent one spring day sitting under the Egg in Millenium Park in Chicago and read the entire manuscript aloud. Luc read Matt, I read Free, and we made sure that every dirty word, every incidence of violence, every seemingly risqué scene (there is only one) was warranted and belonged.
Luc is Francophone and doesn’t write in English. I’m a black guy who grew up in West Texas. We met working together in a Parisian suburb that was largely North African and Muslim. This was central to what we wanted to get at with Away Running. Because more than a story about playing football in France, it’s a novel about race and class and identity — about the common thing at the core of all of us.
That’s why, from the book’s very conception, Luc and I insisted upon a dual-voiced narrative, one black and one white. The very point of the novel is dialogue because, at heart, the element that seems notably missing from our public conversations about race is the actual conversation. In what passes for racial dialogue today, a voice from one group speaks — typically, from the historically underrepresented and oppressed one — and the other group listens, often feeling guilted into silence. The character of the speech is usually exhortatory and admonishing (think, Ta-Nehisi Coates), and as a result, too often the so-called conversation is one-sided.
Don’t get me wrong: black folks, as a historically oppressed and silenced community, need an opportunity to have a public voice about the black experience and about the black view on the American experience. We need to be able to publically and proudly claim our black identity. The work of black forebears (Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, Zora Hurston, James Baldwin, so many more), leading up to the Black Arts Movement and since, have gotten us — and the U.S., as a society — to the point where we can do this.
But what happens then? How do we bring other voices into the conversation? Too often the supposed conversation is merely each different group casting its own unique view. At a certain point, the conversation has to move away from monologue and become truly dialogic.
In Away Running, neither Luc nor I wanted to narrate the story of a person from one particular group describing racial oppression. We wanted a back-and-forth between a black person and a white person, dramatizing the complex roots and motivations that contribute to and result in racism and oppression.
And personally, collaboration on this particular project was really attractive. I was really drawn to the possibilities of what I might learn from working with Luc on it. Because if writing is a sort of conversation between an author and an audience — and for me, it is —then the dialogue is opened up and made more immediate for the writer when working collaboratively. It’s not just me, alone at my desk. Having a different viewpoint interacting with mine added a texture and complexity to my understanding of the subject matter that I’m not sure I would have reached otherwise. The “write what you know” thing can be very limiting. Working collaboratively with Luc, who is white and Canadian (“Quebecois,” he’d insist), helped me begin to move past it.
What would you have done differently?
I am sure of the lacking that I and others have recognized in book publishing, and especially in
children’s book publishing. And I’m proud of how Luc and I went about attempting to confront it — which is to say, by writing a book featuring two voices, one black, one white, taking on the issues head-on.
Another book appeared at about the same time as ours with a strikingly similar approach and theme. All-American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2015) is a dual-voiced narrative about two boys, one black and one white, and addresses the problem of police brutality against young men of color. Strikingly similar! I enjoyed their novel, but what I most remarked about it is how the two narratives run parallel to one another rather than truly speaking to each other. I don’t mean this as criticism, it’s just an observation about the choice that Kiely and Reynolds made.
Luc and I wanted something that looked more like interconnectedness rather than just interrelatedness. I hope we achieved this.