Tell us about yourself, your education and experience.
I’m an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, songwriter, and poet from Buffalo, NY. In 2005, I graduated from the State University of New York at Geneseo with a BA in history and a secondary teaching credential, and in the ten years since, I’ve taught in over fifteen American public schools as either a substitute or full-time teacher. I’ve been writing for about fourteen years, starting with poetry and songs, then novels and screenplays. I’ve written two novels, seven screenplays that have won over forty awards/honors in various screenwriting competitions, and hundreds songs and poems. My work often explores themes of alienation and misery as human constructions that can be overcome through self-understanding and the acceptance of suffering. I currently teach at a secondary school in San Diego, CA.
What led to you writing Developing minds?
In 2009, I finished writing a novel based on my experiences living in Mexico for about five months after I graduated college. I was severely depressed and in a really bad place, but something about Mexico seeped inside me and made me chose life. When I finished writing the novel, I thought I’d said what I’d wanted to say about life and my experiences with it. But, in July of 2012, I took a road trip to Big Sur, and on the ride up the Pacific Coast Highway, I got to thinking about my experiences teaching at an at-risk middle school in Miami in 2007—and the personal, professional, and creative growths I had there—and realized the story wasn’t over. I started writing it almost immediately after I got back to San Diego, and finished the first draft in about a month. DEVELOPING MINDS is a sort of a loosely-linked sequel to the Mexican novel, UNDERSTANDING THE ALACRAN, and it shows the protagonist’s growth while trying to fit into society after returning from Mexico. My intention with DEVELOPING MINDS wasn’t to demonize teachers or the public school system—I simply wanted to show a portrait of these as true to my experiences with them as possible, while showing how these experiences affected the main character’s maturation and eventual transformation as a writer.
So, is Devloping Minds more of a coming-of-age story, or more a critique of the American public school system?
DEVELOPING MINDS is a coming-of-age story about a young writer whose experiences working in an at-risk school help him to overcome his writers block and understand himself and his writing better. About half of the scenes are set in school, and the other half focus on the main character, Luke’s, struggles and growths in his chaotic personal life. As Luke grows as a teacher and professional, he’s able to put some distance between himself and his self-destructive habits, and he slowly begins to write again. I see it as a coming-of-age story that happens to be set in a middle school.
Why do you think readers have identified with the main character, Luke?
Luke is a complex character. A reviewer at Red City Review called him “relatable, yet deeply flawed.” I never meant to show him as a model teacher or citizen. He’s simply a fucked up kid doing everything he can to keep his head above water while coming-of-age in a chaotic and apathetic world he’s struggling to find his place in and understand. I think people can relate to his frustration and isolation, and, even when he’s doing things that aren’t so scrupulous, they admire him for at least trying to find the right way. Often times, the darkest characters are the ones searching the hardest for the brightest light, and they may do things that hurt others or seem contradictory or hypocritical in that quest. Luke could be a character from a Kris Kristofferson tune.
Why do you think Luke and the other main characters are suffering so much?
I think that some people are happy accepting life as has been shown to them, never questioning if things could be different or any better. Other people, like the characters from this story, have heightened awareness and intelligence—they’re sensitive creatures reluctantly moving forward into a world filled with chaos, and, experiencing this chaos and not being able to do anything about it causes them great suffering—but that suffering manifests itself in self-destructive ways. They also have undiagnosed/untreated mental health issues and, even though they’ve graduated from good universities, they don’t have the tools needed to survive life outside of the school system—which is ironic, because now they’re being devoured by a school system.
Most people already know that some America’s public schools can be dysfunctional and dangerous. Will they learn anything new after reading your book
I know that most people are aware that some of our nation’s public schools can be dysfunctional and dangerous, but I’ve found that this awareness is limited or distorted by cartoonish books and films they’ve seen that exaggerate the violence and/or teacher/student interactions, leading people to have a false idea of what’s really going on in America’s public schools. I think DEVELOPING MINDS provides an honest look at what’s going on behind closed doors without slipping into a cartoonish exaggeration of reality.
Does the book offer any specific solutions to problems in America’s public schools?
Not really. The book discusses some general ways individuals can cope working within a dysfunctional system, but it doesn’t offer any specific strategies. Again, my intention here wasn’t to “save the day”—I simply wanted to take the reader inside of a dysfunctional school and show how this dysfunction affected the main character, who used his experiences there to take steps away from his own mental disease and find a more positive life path. The focus is on this journey, not the school.
Dan Brown must wear gravity boots, Catherine McKenzie must have her tunes. Is there something special you must have or do before you write?
I don’t have any specific superstitions that I have to honor or rituals that I have to perform in order to write, I simply do it when I need to. For a long time, writing had been an act of desperation—that I needed to get the words out before they were lost. I’ve written all over napkins, receipts, parking tickets…anything I could grab whenever that urge has hit. Over the years, I’ve grown less desperate and am now starting to see that writing can be something I can do every day without the fear that the words will just vanish. Now, it’s a much simpler act, where I don’t feel the dizzying highs or crashing lows that I did before. Now, I can emotionally separate myself from my writing, which actually allows me to bring more emotion to my work. It’s something I can easily transition from to do other day-to-day tasks, like cooking dinner or doing laundry. In that calmness and simplicity, I find more space from the darkness, and I’m able to get closer to the darkness, resulting in more powerful writing.
How do you get your inspiration? Is it something you observe, dream about or experience?
I typically find inspiration in everyday people, places, events, that have something special about them. I always felt that we were the story—the people surrounding me. All of their quirks, and defense mechanisms, and triumphs, and struggles… Sometimes these are things that I simply observe, or other times, I’m a part of. While I’ve written some songs based on dreams I’ve had, I wouldn’t cite this as a place I’ve found inspiration to write prose, but observation and experience are the reason why I write.
Other than someone famous, who has influenced your writing the most?
A friend from college. His manner of speaking—intonations, word choice, offbeat humor—has influenced my writing greatly. Sometimes, I find myself writing in a way that he would speak, and I’m reminded of how much of my own voice has been influenced by the people around me. I’m reminded that I carry with me the voices of so many of the people I’ve interacted with throughout my life, but that these voices are all filtered through my own perspective and experiences, resulting in a writing style that can only be my own. This follows up on my response to the previous question in that I typically find inspiration to write to honor the people around me.
Tell me a little about yourself, something not in your bio.
I suffer OCD—although I didn’t realize this, and the profound affect it’s had on my life, until about five years ago. OCD doesn’t just affect my life, it is my life, even after years of treatment. It came on strong when I was about 11 or 12, and I’d spend several hours each day performing rituals in a desperate attempt to control my thoughts and alleviate my anxiety—although I didn’t realize this was the result of a disease. I thought I was just weird . . . broken. Today, even after years of treatment, I still spend about an hour each day checking the locks on doors, checking to be sure windows are closed, faucets are turned off, appliances are unplugged… I understand that this isn’t logical—I’m the first person to admit that. But that’s what the disease does to the brain. I know the door is locked, but my brain won’t allow me to believe this, and I’m filled with intense fear if I just walk away without checking (which, I’ve learned, is the way to cure the disease). I always knew there was something wrong, but I wasn’t quite sure what that was, and I’d always done my best to hide this “wrongness” from other people, but now I’ve learned that I’m not the problem, the OCD is the problem, and I refuse to feel embarrassed about it anymore. Looking back, I see the extent that this disease has affected my art and in understanding this suffering better, I’m able to draw from it and use it to inspire my work. Thankfully, OCD is curable, and I’m looking forward to the day I no longer waste hours of my life performing rituals that no longer serve a purpose.
Standard question everyone asks…..who is your favorite author and why?
Jim Carroll. His work is about as raw and powerful as anything I’ve ever read, and his every word, no matter how informally it looks to have been written, serves some greater purpose to his work. When I read Carroll, I’m reminded of the infinite depth and beauty of the human mind and soul, and I always feel as though I’m in the hands of a pro, allowing me to relax and follow along wherever he takes me. I remember him saying once, in response to a question about his drug-addled youth, that he was shocked that not everyone had the same experiences as he did when they were young. This is something I can relate to. I spent a good chunk of my younger years trying to kill away my troubles with drugs, alcohol, and constant motion, and there was a time I couldn’t understand how this wasn’t something every person did. It baffled me that anyone could live past 30. Now, after having been in treatment for my own issues, I can see that my suffering was caused by illnesses that not everyone experiences, and I’ve been able to make peace with my own suffering as a result. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough now to see that because some people never do. Even though I never lived quite as hard a life as Jim Carroll, I still feel like he was able to tell my story in a way I’ll never be able to, which is why I feel such a connection to his work.