So, this week I had an incredible opportunity.
I got to sit down with about 120 young people who had spent the last month PEEKING INSIDE MY BRAIN.
Yeah, that’s about what it felt like, going to the high school English classes and discussing BIG IN JAPAN with all the students who have read my novel this semester for their literature assignment. They’d seen inside my mind a bit, and it was just a little weird, I’ll be honest. All the surrealness of that aside, I learned a lot from a bunch of 16 and 17 year olds. Very cool.
The teacher, Mr. Murphy, had prepped me on which questions he was planning to have the classes ask me, along the lines of “theme” and inspiration and “how long did it take you to write this book?” (Everyone asks that! And I guess it’s a good question. Answer? Almost three years to the day from the time I typed the beginning of the first draft to the day I held the published product in my hand. Seven drafts later.) Students in six different hours filed into the classroom, and I was able to give my presentation six different times.
Like all teachers know very well, each class had a different dynamic. Some classes were just quiet–couldn’t get any response out of them even if I’d held a samurai sword to their necks. Other classes pretty much took the topics and ran with them, going into great depth. The college prep class was probably the most fun, since some of the students were absolutely incensed about certain scenes or characters in the book and had very strong feelings about the way things in the story turned out. I was particularly impressed with one of the girls, who probably should be a writer herself, who really, really “got” what I intended the meaning to be at the end of the book when Buck makes his final huge sacrifice. (No spoilers! Sorry!) Way to go, Trina.
Another fun surprise was in a different class where a kid I might’ve least have expected to enjoy it was thorougly well versed with the book, had really embraced the characters, wanted to know what happened to minor characters after the story (stuff I haven’t actually planned out in my head) and had even read the book TWICE. Twice. I thought I was the only one who’d read it twice. He even had ideas of what should happen to those other characters, insights into the motivations of the main characters and analysis of why things had to happen the way they did. Thanks a million, Manuel Angel!
One of my favorite discussions came when I asked them which scenes I should definitely keep in a screenplay of it I’m adapting. Almost without exception, the guys said, “Keep in all the fight scenes,” and the girls said, “Keep in all the scenes with Chocho.” Made me smile–because that means the book had an appeal broader than I thought. Yay! Thanks, people, for those answers. While it doesn’t actually help me know exactly which scenes to cut, it does help me know what resonated with what demographic. And that’s really valuable.
Another fun discussion came when I asked, “Tell me: best moment in the book and worst moment in the book.” Their answers were great. A lot of them just hated when Sobakubi attempted to blackmail Buck, or the scene with the baseball bat (you know the scene if you’ve read the book.) The best scene, again, was almost always split on gender lines: girls loved the lovey scenes, guys loved the fight scenes– meaning the scenes where Buck triumphs.
It was eye opening to hear that one of MY books (and I still maintain that I write escapist fiction, books that are best read on a beach) had enough content to be discussed by a group of kids for a full hour, plus however many other discussions they’ve had in their classrooms. Themes of bullying and hazing, of culture differences, of integrity or lack of it, of courage, of feminism, of … yeah. Lots of themes. Who KNEW there were so many themes?
So, how it all ended was that I said something like this:
People ask me from time to time what I hope someone will take away from my book when they’re done reading it. I always think, “Well, nothing. I hope you had a fun few hours of escape.” However, a good friend, Megan, has insisted that BIG IN JAPAN has more to it. So I’ve thought it over, and here’s what I hope you’ll consider.
Have you ever felt different? Have you ever felt like everyone else is “in” and you’re “gaijin/other?” When Buck starts out in the story, he thinks his size is his biggest problem. However, as the story goes on, he finds that the thing that made him so different ended up being his greatest gift.
And so, go somewhere. Do some things. An as you go through your life, do what Buck did–no matter what, be a good person and make the right choice even when it’s the tough or unpopular choice. And if you do that, a way will open up for you, I strongly believe, for the thing that has always made you “different” to become the thing that makes you “great.”
It was a great day at Safford High School. Thank you so much for having me in your classroom! And thank you so much for reading Big in Japan. Domo, Arigato Gozaimasu!