Jon Shank writes about Central PA life, education, art, politics and more.
Another school year has come to an end. I've bid farewell to another graduating class. After 9 years I still find it an amazing paradox how time can both fly and drag at the same time. But now summer has arrived. I imagine most non-teachers believe those of us in education spend these next 10 weeks or so on perpetual vacation. Not so. Most take classes, volunteer, work other jobs, as well as begin preparing for the next year.
Though I've already started tweaking lesson plans, re-reading the novels I teach. and taking on-line classes, time does become more available to use as I see fit. That said, I will spend some of that time on keep this blog active and updated. There are so many issues concerning education, the arts and politics in the Mid-State that I eagerly look forward to discussing in this forum. However, I first want to deliver the promised interview from my first blog entry.
From time to time, I hope to highlight teachers who have interests that both inform their teaching, but go beyond the walls of their classroom. The first such piece profiles Adam Leonard, a Lebanon area art teacher, who, in the hopes of inspiring teenage boys to read, wrote his first novel.
I hope you enjoy and I look forward to hearing your comments!
Many, upon hearing a group of teenage boys discuss their antipathy toward reading, might bemoan the apathetic state of teenagers today. They might just shrug their shoulders, unsurprised by such comments and go about their day. But not Adam Leonard, an art teacher at Cedar Crest High School. He realized that the boys didn't hate reading per say. These boys saw the world of books as an alien landscape, perhaps even a hostile one, meant for others, but not for them. The books their English teachers, such as myself, forced them to read failed to provide a hospitable environment to grow their interest. Popular books of the moment, like Twilight or Harry Potter, spoke to audiences that didn't include them. They wanted to read, Leonard thought, but they did not think any books existed that were meant for them.
So Leonard decided, after his initial disappointment, to attempt to write a book that would appeal to the average teenage boy. The result: a tale of action, suspense and fantasy entitled The Rift Riders (Summons of the Song, Book 1).
The book follows a group of friends, Jimmy, Boltz, Shane, Dylan, Vicky, and Diana, as they travel from our world into the fantastic realm of Nereus, a world inhabited by strange creatures and unknown dangers. Throughout the course of the novel, these young men and women are forced to make life changing decisions, face their fears, and defy a myriad of challenges. The book interweaves adventure, fantasy, Greek mythology and romance (just a little) into a gripping read that, according to one Amazon reviewer, is "...able to grasp the world of a teen boy's imagination perfectly."
In the interview the follows, I asked Adam about his inspirations, processes, and views on the book world today.
Me: Did you consciously choose to write a novel for young adults? What drew you to this genre?
Adam Leonard: Yes, I actually was writing a story for 4-5 specific teens I had in class at the time who I was shocked to learn had never experienced the joy of reading a book that they liked. It is hard to get a fifteen year old reluctant reader to appreciate antiquated writing that is above their reading level and deals with subject matter that is not interesting to them. I wish there were more teen-centered stories on high school reading lists.
So, my goal was to write a book for the reluctant teenage reader, a book with short chapters and a very fast pace that would keep their attention. I snuck in themes I thought were important as well like: staying true to yourself, doing the right thing, and redemption (not giving up when you fail and making up for past bad decisions).
Me: In your dedication, you thanked two of your former students, Zach Francisco and Amanda Martin, for "helping me think like a teenager once again." In what way did these two influence your writing?
AL: Well, the characters in The Rift Riders are based on myself and friends of mine, so it was easy for me to imagine what they would do in certain situations, but my mindset was based in the 1980s. Zack helped me with finding things that were too outdated or sounded "off," and Amanda suggested I add romance to the story, which I hadn't even considered previously.
Writing for teens is easy for me because I am a high school teacher and am around teens all day.
Me: Did you set out to write a fantasy novel? And why did you include Greek mythology so prevalently? Specifically, what was the allure of the story of Odysseus?
AL: I remember being fascinated by movies like Jason and the Argonauts and the Sinbad movies as a kid. I remember reading the Odyssey in school and thinking that the writing was hard to read but the story was so cool. I think teen guys want to escape to other worlds; they want to read something that puts them into scary situations and gets their blood pumping. I was into Stephen King in high school. I liked his cynical attitude and his characters' sarcasm and gritty realism. Girls like to read books based on romance and high school clicks and the unfairness of it all. Guys spend all day waiting to get out of high school and the last thing they want to do is read a book after school about being in school!
So, I thought I would write a story about a bunch of guys who get pulled into a world that spawned Greek mythology. I wanted to put a new spin on the origin of Greek mythology but still retain the characters and integrity of the original tales.
Odysseus is the original super hero. He fought monsters, the living dead, and even the gods! He was sarcastic and clever as well. Greek myths were so complex, the good guys didn't always win, there was horrific violence, but also humor and irony, and stories of great love and sacrifice. They have it all.
Me: How did you create the descriptions and names for such fantastic creatures as bisoprope, saurs, and kakons? Did you have to do any research to creature your world of Nereus?
AL: Yes, I wanted to stay true to the original concepts and characters of the original tales. I had read a lot of Greek mythology in college and grad school and was familiar with many myths already. My wife, who is an English teacher, especially likes Greek mythology so we have a lot of mythology books around the house.
I wanted to use classic Greek creatures as well as create some new ones of my own invention and also play around with new interpretations of old monsters. For the ones of my own creation, I created names for them that were based on Greek words, so "bisoprope" means "two faces," "saurs" mean lizards, and "kakons," means evil ones. The world of "Nereus" is based on Greek mythology, Nereus (Νηρεύς) was the eldest son of Pontus (the Sea) and Gaia (the Earth), so this was appropriate for my creation of a world that had sentient creatures that lived in both the Sea and on land. And the "Sirens" were actually a combination of the original Greek idea of a Siren combined with the outer appearance of the Greek creature called a "gorgon," Medusa being the template.
I tried to channel my inner Ray Harryhausen (He was the creator of the Claymation monsters for all the old Sinbad and Jason and the Argonaut movies).
Me: How long have you been writing?
AL: I have enjoyed writing stories since I was a little kid. I have always enjoyed writing funny stories or ones that have a twist at the end. I still have a Christmas story I wrote in 6th grade that is told from the perspective of a pig, who you find out is headed to the slaughter house and reveals himself to be a canned ham at the end of the story.
Me: How do you approaching writing? What's your process like? How do you find the time?
AL: You will never "find" time; you have to "make" time. I have a tiny ASUS netbook that is use to write wherever I happen to be. I love it
For big scenes or chapter ideas, I like to close my eyes in bed or while taking a bath and just imagine the scene and characters. I can usually get most of the chapter planned out in my mind in this fashion.
When I am brainstorming multiple chapters or bigger plot arcs and how multiple plot lines will interact and build I always outline, because there are so many events and characters at play it is easy to get confused and make mistakes. I also like to keep a general timeline for the whole book to keep everything straight.
Me: How does writing compare with your other artistic endeavors such as painting and sculpture?
AL: Art and writing are very similar to me in many ways. Both are creative outlets of expression and can be very personal in a special way. Both allow you to communicate ideas, stories, and messages directly into the mind of people you may have never met and can even transcend time and space. I am always fascinated to read writing written in first person where the author, though perhaps dead for centuries, speaks directly to YOU, as if he is sitting beside you. Art can communicate messages and feeling through time and space as well and can make their creator's feelings and thoughts about certain things immortal in a way.
Sculpture and writing for me are just plain fun. I enjoy doing them both. They relax me. I enjoy sculpting and writing about strange and creepy things like monsters as realistically as possible. So I guess there is some overlap there as well. I think that self doubt and self consciousness in both areas are the kiss of death for the creator, and I have learned to just make and write what I enjoy regardless of how I think it will be received. Just do it, worry about it later, or even better, don't worry about it at all! Art and writing are both extremely subjective: some people will understand you and your work, and some people will always NOT get you and your work... so there is no sense trying to please everyone, because you will fail. The best you can do is to please yourself and know that someone out there will understand and enjoy your work. (The rest can suck lemons!)
Me: Could you talk about the publication process? Did you have an agent?
AL: No. I was querying agents and small publishers and I got accepted by a small publisher first and went with them (they do not require an agent). Once accepted by a publisher, it generally takes a full year until it will be available for purchase. It is a VERY SLOW process!
I have some other books I am working on and when I finish them I will submit the manuscript to agents again because it would be best to be able to publish through the largest publishers who will market your book more thoroughly.
Me: What advice do you have for would-be-writers?
AL: My advice would be to write for yourself. Write things that make you laugh and that you think are exciting and interesting. Take all the constructive advice you can get and ignore ALL the negative stuff. And lastly, get your work out there for people to read and enjoy! This is a new and exciting time for writers because there are so many avenues to pursue to get your writing published and read by others! Explore all your options and don't get discouraged...even Stephen King got rejected dozens and dozens of times before he was finally published!
Me: Your book appears in both physical and electronic forms. How do you feel about e-books and the future of publishing?
AL: I am definitely a bibliophile and actually recently began collecting antique books and first editions, but publishing is changing and there is no going back to the way things were. I have a Kindle and buy books all the time for prices that range from free to $10. You just can't beat free! And why pay $25 for a novel that you can get digitally for $4? Plus, I like to switch back and forth between books on my Kindle- it is so easy- a whole library and instant access to just about any book in the world in one small, lightweight, easy to read machine.
Most of my book sales have been as eBooks, and now with libraries and even school libraries going electronic, I think eBooks are the future for sure. They have already outsold printed books nationally as a whole and will most likely continue to do so. As textbooks go digital in schools as well, the newer generations won't have the fondness for the printed book that many of us of older generation have.
Me: Lastly, Rift Riders ends with the promise of a sequel. Your website indicates that this second work is well underway. What can we expect for Jimmy, Boltz, Shane, Dylan, Vicky and Diana this time around? When might fans be able to purchase the new book?
AL: I plan to finish the sequel this summer and hopefully it will be available to readers for the Fall of 2013 or Spring of 2014. The guys go to HELL literally in the sequel... you will be shocked to discover how the skeletal ferryman, Charon (Grim Reaper in Western culture), became a living corpse!
I encourage everyone to read The Rift Riders. Also check out Adam's website.
Published in In the Wake: A community blog