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I’ve talked publicly about my hate mail, but today I want to talk about something that continues to give me joy, and renders hate mail irrelevant. Fan mail is great. It’s lovely to get letters from folks who connected with the book and wrestled with the issues it tackles.

The letters that get to me, though, aren’t necessarily fan mail. They’re usually longer than my other letters and emails, because these stories require more words. These are from people who didn’t just sympathize with Wavy and Kellen. These are from people who say, “This was me.”

People who know what it’s like to be in a relationship that everybody else looks down on. What it’s like to be in love with someone who is way too young or way too old for you, according to our society’s standards. What it’s like to lie about that relationship for years or sometimes your whole life. What it’s like to lose that relationship. What it’s like to finally make it legitimate.

People who’ve had to listen while others lectured them. Who’ve been told they must be confused, because they were too young to consent or even understand their feelings. Who’ve been told they need counseling. People who’ve been forcibly labeled a victim, and even as adults been refused even the most basic dignity of being believed.

If you’re out there, feeling those things, you’re not the only one.

When I met him, I was ten and he was nineteen, starts one of the letters I’ve received. I knew immediately that he was The One, even though it took us more than fifteen years to be together.

From another letter: We were twelve years apart and we never got to be together, because everyone said I was too young.

And another: On my eighteenth birthday, I went to his house and said, “I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen years old.” He said, “I know. I’ve been waiting for you.” We got married three years later–it took us that long to bring my parents around. In February, we celebrated his fortieth birthday and our fifth anniversary.

Not all of them go the way you think they will: She was twenty-five and I was fourteen. She moved away because she was ashamed. She thought it was wrong to feel that way about me. Two years ago, I found her and wrote a letter. She had been married and divorced twice. She said she never got over me. If I wasn’t in prison, we would be together now.

Some of them just about break my heart. I felt like a horrible old pervert when I fell in love with her. Like in Lolita. She was only thirteen and I was over thirty. We were fast friends all through her high school years, and I always played the avuncular neighbor. She got married in my backyard. I’m her son’s godfather. When she was thirty-two she was diagnosed with cancer. After her health declined, she moved back home, next door to me. One day I brought by food and flowers from my backyard. Her parents went to the store and left us alone together. She confessed that she had always been in love with me, but her mother had shamed her out of saying so on the eve of her wedding a decade before. You can probably imagine what my answer was. Two weeks later, I lost the only woman I’ve ever loved to cancer. There is still a hole in my heart from everything that was destroyed by doubt and fear. I’m seventy-three now, still a bachelor. She would be fifty-five, and no one would give us so much as a sideways glance if we were married.

These are just a few of the stories people have shared with me (and agreed to have shared), and the reason they shared them with me is simple. My book has let them know that they’re not alone. They’re not the only one who has experienced this kind of relationship. Some of my readers have carried that shame or heartbreak or even joy in secret for years.

This is one more reminder that stories matter, especially stories that we see ourselves in. It’s a reminder, too, that writing is risk. When I wrote All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I didn’t know what people would think. I knew that some people would hate the book and me by extension, but I also know the story was true for me. I told it as honestly as I could, and I knew that alongside the haters, there would also be readers for whom the story was true. I knew I wasn’t the only one.

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One of the questions I get asked a lot is How do you choose which point of view to write a scene from? The answer is complicated, because I almost never write a scene from just one character’s POV. If there are three characters in a scene, odds are good that I’ve written a version of that scene from each of their POVs. This is very true of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. I wrote multiple versions of nearly every scene in the book.

As for how I chose which version ended up in the book, that was influenced by several factors: the way characters’ perspectives affected the plot, the way revelations affect character development, and above all, the reaction I wanted readers to have to a scene. With some scenes, it was easy to decide. For others, I spent weeks wrestling with the decision. Perhaps the hardest choice I made was who was going to narrate the events of Kellen’s 26th birthday, or as it’s sometimes referred to: the infamous handjob scene. For this month’s newsletter, the bonus scene from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is the flip side to that birthday, that night from Wavy’s POV.

That scene is split into two sections–Kellen’s birthday dinner and the aftermath. In the published version, both segments are narrated by him, and I made that decision in order to balance readers on the edge of a knife. I wanted them to see Kellen in a new light. I wanted to reveal certain elements of Wavy’s personality that would echo back to other parts of the book. Most importantly, I wanted readers to feel the emotional impact of that night deeply, but I didn’t want to destroy them. Not yet anyway.

Kellen’s telling of his birthday is extraordinarily painful in a way that Wavy’s version isn’t. On that night, he comes face to face with the nature of his feelings for Wavy and with his own failure to protect her. As he hasn’t until that moment, he understands that this relationship that has expanded to fill so much of his life is not as simple as it should be. I wanted readers to come away from that scene feeling winded and a little scorched, and even doubting Kellen. After all, that’s how he’s feeling when it’s over.

I feared that telling the scene from Wavy’s POV would have too little impact. On that night, she is testing out what it will mean for her to become a woman. She is investigating her own powers of attraction and attempting to change the dynamics of her relationship with Kellen. Honestly, in rereading this scene from her POV, she comes off as pretty flippant about it all. She is unprepared for the damage it’s going to do to Kellen. Told from her POV, the scene is not devastating enough.

Conversely, the aftermath of that ill-fated handjob, told from her perspective, is too devastating. Kellen is already trying to calculate the trajectory of this moment, and looking ahead to the future. He is negotiating with himself how he will mitigate the harm he’s done. There is an element of calm, or at least a veneer of calm over his shame and his rage.

Wavy’s horror-stricken narration, however, reveals the effects of childhood full of shame and self-loathing. Naked and shivering in that bathtub, she is stripped bare emotionally to a little girl whose worst fears have been realized: she’s dirty and unlovable. Every bit of confidence she gained from Kellen’s kindness is gone. It left me as the writer feeling ravaged and hopeless. I feared it would do the same to readers, when I most needed them to have the strength to go on.

Having had a little glimpse behind the scenes of my writing process, I’m curious what readers will make of the choice I made.

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Tonight, over on Facebook, I’ll be hosting a live Q & A. If you have any burning questions about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (or any other book-related things), I’ll be answering them from 7:30 to 9:30 CST.

If you’ve been wondering where January’s lost scene is, it’s available exclusively this week on the Book of the Month Club’s blog.

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As we do, I went into 2017 with plans for all kinds of improvements to my life. At work, I cleaned my desk off, and so far it’s produced mixed results. I’m less depressed to come to work, because my space is more orderly, but the cleanliness of my desk seems to invite people to make more requests of me. Perhaps because my work is not so clearly displayed, they think I don’t have enough of it?

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I re-started my home yoga practice, which is almost completely to the good. Of course there’s time for it. There was always time for it.

nyt_bestseller_010416Oh, I made the NYT Bestseller list. Which is not quite the result of any change on my part, but an outcropping of a lot of years of work and several lucky breaks. Or maybe it was all my positive thinking. (Probably not, I don’t really do much of that.)

This week, however, I found a thing that I used to think I wanted to change about myself, but now realize I don’t. When my editor and agent delivered the good news that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was officially a bestseller, they also asked about my next project. Did I have a synopsis I could share with them?

Welllllll … I don’t really do synopses or outlines or any sort of planning when it comes to writing. I’m a complete pantser (which Autocorrect thinks should be panther.) I write lots and lots of words and after I’ve put several thousand of them together, I start to see the shape of a story. Then I write more words. Usually a lot more words. Then out of this mountain of words, I carve the story I want to tell. It’s not pretty. It’s not simple. But I realized this week that it totally works for me, and I need to stop feeling awkward or ashamed about my messy, chaotic process to creation.

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Now, I did produce a synopsis for my agent and editor to look at, but it’s just a big pile of guesses. (Shh, don’t tell.) I don’t know if that’s what will happen in the story I’m working on. I’m okay with that. I used that crazy method to produce All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, and that seems to have worked out for me.

So whatever things you may have resolved to change in 2017, remember there are plenty of things about the same old you that are worth keeping.

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When I was in high school, I was in the marching band. Depending on the venue, I played either the baritone saxophone or the bass saxophone. All 5’5″ and 90 lbs. of me, so it was no easy feat. During my sophomore year, we traveled to an away game that would decide whether the football team went on to the state championships for our division.

During that game it rained, it sleeted, it snowed. The marching band performed valiantly, and the football team a little less so. We lost to a team whose quarterback would become my brother-in-law a few years later. By the time we loaded onto the bus for the long ride home, the marching band was mostly frozen into our uniforms. We were lucky they were heavy wool, because although we were all soaked and frozen, we were fairly warm sealed up inside that wet wool. I spent most of the ride home with the harness for the bass sax still attached, because my hair was frozen to it.

On the drive there, we’d done much cheering and chanting, but the ride home was more subdued. A well-meaning, but misguided cheerleader started up a familiar cheer. At the point in the cheer when the audience was supposed to respond with “We’re Number One!” I answered in my loudest, crowd-piercing voice: “We’re Number Two!” I got some glares, but the tired and frozen brass section behind me took up the chant. Honestly, we weren’t bitter. The team had made it further than anyone expected us to. There was no shame in having come in second.

atuawt-cover-w-goodreads-badgeThat’s how I feel this morning, upon being informed that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things received the second highest number of votes in the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Fiction. 27,000 people voted my book! I got more votes than Jodi Picoult (mind=boggled).

So in honor of all the second place runners up, I am celebrating!

I’m Number Two!

And thank you to everybody who voted for me! If you’d like to celebrate with me, please consider leaving me a review on your preferred online venue. Reviews really do make a huge difference.

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Last week, there was a bit of a dust up about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things on social media. I did my best to stay out of it, but having stayed out of it, I’d like to address the issue very briefly here and without naming names.

It’s okay to hate my book. Not every book is for everybody.

If you read my book and you hate it, that’s fine. We’re square, you and me. I brought myself to the book. You brought yourself to the book. Perhaps we’re just not compatible. That’s cool.

If you choose not to read my book, because of things you have heard about it, that’s okay, too. I often give books a pass if they sound like something I wouldn’t want to read.

If you choose not to read my book, but then publicly express your hatred for it and for anyone who enjoyed it, understand that your hatred is coming from a place of ignorance. Are you comfortable with being that person? Someone who hates something out of ignorance? Someone who judges people without knowing who they are or what they’ve been through?

On a nearly daily basis, I am called upon by strangers to defend All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. And if they were merely asking me to defend my book, I might not be so troubled, but this morning, I have yet another email that asks, “Why would you write a book like this?”

I suspect that the real question is Why do you exist? Within that question about my existence, there are these questions: Why did you choose to have a drug dealer as your father? Why did you experience things that make me uncomfortable? Why do you think you have a right to tell stories that reflect your life? Why don’t you shut up?

The answer is simple. I won’t shut up, because if people like you have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what you’ve experienced, people like me have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what we’ve experienced. I’m going to keep doing that.

night-sky-for-custom-book-plates

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I thought there was a good chance I’d better get more deleted scenes ready to send out in my October newsletter. With only five days left in September, we are thisclose to two more deleted scenes. Just six more reviews on GR to hit 1100 reviews, and 12 more to hit 200 on Amazon. That means two more deleted scenes, and probably a little something extra.

For anyone who needs motivation, here’s a little teaser of the next Donal scene.

May 1989

“Goddamn Liam,” Sean said. He was like Mama that way, always complaining about Liam. I mean how funny was that? Liam had been dead six years, and Sean was still going on and on about how everything was his fault.

“Lousy twenty grand. That’s all it woulda took to put me back on my feet. Woulda cleared me with the Leffer brothers. And all this–all this–” He waved his arms around wild enough that other people on the sidewalk stepped out of his way. People did that now that he’d lost his front teeth. You wouldn’t think four teeth would make that big a difference, but it really did. He just looked scarier without them, the way his mouth sagged in.

We were walking to see “this guy,” who Sean said could get him some work. Well, I don’t know if Sean had ever used the word work in his life, but he said this guy could him some money, so it was a job. Sean was supposed to go down to Mexico on the bus and drive a car back. That’s how the guy, whose name was Dougie, described it: “Just go down and drive the car back.”

As soon as we got off the bus in Mexicali and I saw the car, I knew exactly what it was. What Kellen used to call making a run. Because the car was just a car. It wasn’t anything special. Not the kind of car you go to the trouble to send some guy to Mexico to get. Unless the car had drugs in it, which I figured it did. I didn’t look. As soon as we got the car, I thought we should turn right around and head back, but Sean, being Sean, wanted to dick around.

“Let’s stop and get some tacos,” he said. “When are you gonna get real Mexican tacos?”

Right, tacos. But he was driving, so when he pulled off at this little roadside place, I took the money he gave me and went inside to get tacos. I figured you’d have to have pesos to buy tacos in Mexico, but they took my dollars.

When I came back to the car, Sean was slumped over in the backseat with a fucking needle in his arm.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Right out here in the open?”

He didn’t answer, because as always he was wrecked. I sat there for about half an hour, long enough to eat my tacos. Then I got to worrying that we were just sitting by the side of the road in Mexico with a bunch of dope in the trunk, waiting to get robbed.

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