“Let me explain. My school day starts with Calculus, which is a form of math designed to convince people they want to be History majors in college.”
Cindy: David Lubar’s sense of humor is fully at play in his latest character-driven novel, Character, Driven (2015). Seventeen-year-old Cliff Sparks (not the only name Lubar has fun with) is looking to come of age during his senior year of high school, but that quest is not easily accomplished, or the only one he faces. Bullies are not always classmates, and some are harder to vanquish than others. Through Cliff’s storytelling, the bitter truths of complicated teenage life are made easier to swallow with liberal doses of humor, humility, and horniness. Wordplay chapter titles (“A band, end all hope”) and Cliff’s asides to the reader add to the delight of the story. His experience with girls has been nothing but embarrassing or tragic. Take this example of fast dancing:
“Her body moved like it had been strung together loosely but lovingly by a slightly horny and highly skilled marionette maker. My designer seemed more fond of Legos.”
Embarrassing moments will probably continue throughout Cliff’s life, but he learns that they are suffered more easily when you are with someone you trust. Pay attention to the book’s opening—the dramatic coda at the close will send teens back to the beginning for another read. It’s not just all fun and games in this story.
David posted this photo on Facebook the day the finished copies of Character Driven arrived. After 30-plus books, and months of writing and editing and proofing the document, seeing the book is clearly still special to David. I have photos of both of my children the day I birthed them (well, actually I don’t—there was a mix-up at the photo lab and I never got my second daughter’s photos back, another reason to embrace digital photography over film, but I digress) and I’m not sure that if I had birthed 30 kids that I would still care about taking a photo with them. Sad, but true. I decided to ask David a few questions about Character Driven in our first Bookends interview.
1. Character, Driven has three starred reviews so far, making it special for reviewers, but why, after so many other successful books, is it special for you?
In the spirit of the Super Bowl, which happened not all that long ago, I’m going to have to go long with this answer. Let me begin with an anecdote. Sometimes, during school visits, I’ll read “At the Wrist,” a story about a boy who loses his father’s hand right after the father has a bad encounter with a table saw. The hand returns to punish the boy by smacking him at night. Fairly often, during the Q&A session, a kid will ask, “Is that based on real life?” This gives me a chance to explain that everything I write is inspired by something I’ve experienced. The punishing hand was inspired by the horror of seeing parents swat dawdling children in public places, and I once had the misfortune to see someone nick a fingertip on a saw. In the case of my fantasy stories, happily, the fiction lives far removed from the experience. With Character, Driven, as I searched for various meat grinders and rock tumblers for Cliff to survive, I looked a lot deeper, and a lot closer to home. I guess you could say that the experiences and emotions have one or two degrees of separation from their inspirations.
It was liberating for me to write for the older
range of YA. I could get grittier, deeper, and
darker than in my other YA novels.
On top of that, I did something I haven’t done since Dunk. (Interestingly enough, until now, that was always the novel I felt was my best work.) Dunk is set in Wildwood, NJ. You could walk along the boardwalk with the book in hand, and recognize the places I described. Character, Driven is also set in a real place, though the name is changed. It’s my hometown, and my high school, along with various additions necessary to the story. In my other novels, the settings are less exact (except for True Talents, which is set in Philadelphia). For example, the school in Hidden Talents isn’t modeled after any actual place, and the town in Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie is just a mishmash of eastern Pennsylvania, somewhere near the Delaware River and south of the Poconos.
I think it was also liberating for me to write for the older range of YA. I could get grittier, deeper, and darker than in my other YA novels. The only place I went in those directions until now was in some of my short stories. I love writing one liners, funny chapter books, and amusing middle-grade novels. But the fact that Character, Driven is both a coming-of-age novel and a story wrapped in a metafictional framework allowed me to flex all my literary muscles. The narrative could be as brutal and as cathartic as necessary to tell the story honestly.
Speaking of brutality and catharsis, I turned sixty while writing the book. It feels wonderful to know I can top what I did in my forties. I’m still growing as an artist.
2. You’ve always been one of our best humor writers, but I know you’ve recently been taking stand-up comedy classes. Have you enjoyed that experience, and has it affected the way you write humor in your novels?
First of all, thank you very much for those kind words. I did take a class in stand-up comedy. I loved it, and I wanted to do more, but I knew I couldn’t give comedy the time it needed. During the 6-week class, I wrote 25 drafts of my 5-minute routine. I practiced constantly. I ran it past two of my very funny writer friends, Jordan Sonnenblick and Paul Acampora. I did it for neighbors. I practiced it in the shower, and whenever I was driving anywhere. I was obsessed, because I wanted to do a good job and capture it on video. (Readers can view my graduation performance, which I think was fairly respectable for a first-time stand-up experience.) I started to work on a second routine, but I knew I couldn’t keep giving standup that much time when I had books to write. I still dabble a bit by sharing a minute or two of new material when I’m speaking to educators. I had the thrill of testing material in Clark County, Nevada, so I can honestly say I played in Vegas. I also took several improv classes. The thing that struck me immediately was that improv was exactly like writing dialogue, except I only got to do half of it. In the end, to finally answer your question, I think that the standup class made me a better speaker, allowing me to feel more intimately connected with the audience, and slowing my pace a bit, but it didn’t have any real effect on my writing, other than a desire to write a book about a kid who wants to break into comedy.
I guess “aha!” leads to “hah hah!”
3. The infamous “they” say that humor is often born of pain. Agree? Cliff Sparks certainly deals with pain, physical and mental, and yet he may be the funniest character you’ve created yet.
Pain definitely is one source of humor. Humor can also arise as a defense mechanism. I guess, in that case, it’s an attempt to avoid pain. But it can also spring from the joy of creativity. Jokes happen when we realize a surprising or unexpected connection. For example, here’s a joke I came up with a while ago: “My wife and I played poker to see who would do the laundry. She had four aces, so I folded.” If people laugh, they do so when they realize the connection between folding a poker hand and folding laundry. I guess “aha!” leads to “hah hah!”
4. I get more requests for humor, than any other genre, from my middle-school students. Many teachers think that boys are crazy about Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books because there are illustrations to break up the text, but I think the popularity is due as much to the Kinney’s way with humor. Name some other middle- and high-school authors who you admire for their funny writing.
I already mentioned Jordan and Paul. (Though I do get paid for every mention, so let’s start out with them.) Paul’s upcoming novel, How to Avoid Extinction is very funny. The scene from Jordan’s Notes from the Midnight Driver, where the handcuffed main character is trying to drink coffee, is one of my favorites. Chris Crutcher is hilarious. I defy anybody to get through the first chapter of King of the Mild Frontier without cracking up. I adore Bruce Coville, both as a funny writer and a human being. Dian Curtis Regan has a sense of humor very similar to mine. (Of course, if I now say she’s great, it will look like I’m praising myself. So I’ll leave it at that.) Others who make me laugh (and I know I’m missing someone whose name will come to mind as soon as this piece is posted): Joan Bauer, Greg Leitich Smith, Dan Gutman, Gordon Korman, and the really funny writer who now hates me.
4.5. Give us your funniest line in Character, Driven—wait, never mind, I’m still recovering from the one about the underside of the library table.
Given that we are not only still within memory of the Super Bowl, but are also awash with political debates, let me respond like a candidate by not exactly answering your question. Instead, I’ll share several things that aren’t in the book. Here’s my funniest marketing line (which I suspect will never be used): “This time, the Weenies are real.” And here’s a tweet that came to mind when I was giving serious thought (seriously) to my concern that readers shouldn’t approach this book before they are comfortable with mature content. I realized there’s a line involving a body part in the introduction that would signal the nature of the book. Thus, this Tweet: “Chekhov’s genitalia dictum: ‘If you mention a penis in the first chapter of a YA novel, it better go off before the last chapter.'” And, in the spirit of bringing all of this full circle, I pinned my most popular (and thus, possibly, the funniest) tweet, which was about a previous Super Bowl, at the top of my Twitter feed, for the enjoyment of everyone.
Wait. I’m technically finished, but I do have one more thing to say. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to talk about Character, Driven. I’m gratified by the overwhelmingly positive initial reception reviewers and early readers have given the book. And I appreciate all the work educators do to find the right book for each reader. I hope those of you who read this book feel the joy I put into it.